BOZEMAN — Against the perennially most productive rushing powerhouse in the Big Sky Conference, Isaiah Ifanse had a day for the ages.
The Montana State true freshman sparked a banner day for the MSU rushing attack as the Bobcats both plowed and dashed their way to 430 yards, the fourth-most in the history of the program.
Ifanse himself took a variety of inside zone handoffs and showed his full skill set. The former Washington Gatorade Player of the Year used vision and patience on all three of his impressive touchdown runs, including a 74-yard burst in the first quarter that staked the hosts to a 14-0 lead. Ifanse scored touchdowns of 28 and 29 yards early in the second half to push the Bobcat advantage to 42-14 before Cal Poly came storming back.
The two-headed monster of fullback Joe Protheroe and quarterback Khaleel Jenkins relentlessly brought the hammer at Montana State’s defense with powerful operation of Cal Poly’s triple option offense. Jenkins’ first of three touchdown runs capped a 19-play, 92-yard drive to cut MSU’s advantage to 14. Jenkins’ second and third touchdowns drew the Mustangs within a touchdown in a game the team trailed by four scores with 26 minutes left to play.
In the end, Ifanse’s breakout afternoon combined with a pair of explosive touchdown runs by quarterback Troy Andersen despite playing through a twisted knee were enough to snap Montana State’s two-game losing streak.
Ifanse rushed for 227 yards, the eighth-highest single-game total by a Bobcat and MSU’s freshmen single-game record by nearly 30 yards, and the Bobcats averaged nearly 10 yards per carry against a porous Cal Poly defense that showed little initiative to tackle in the open field during the game’s first 35 minutes as Montana State ran its way to a 49-42 victory in front of 16,747 at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“He’s a bad dude, man,” third-year head coach Jeff Choate said following his 14th victory at MSU. “I love that kid. He’s going to be something special. We are fortunate to have him. There’s a bright future for that young man.”
“We kept them off balance with our alignments in our run game with our zone schemes and our gap schemes. Clearly, Isaiah great job. But it was those receivers blocking down field that keyed those explosive plays,” Choate continued. “The guys up front do their jobs, it breaks to second level. Guys on the edges do their jobs, that’s when you get the big ones.”
Two straight Cal Poly fumbles to open the second half led to Ifanse’s second and third touchdowns of the game, doubling MSU’s 28-14 halftime lead with 11:35 left in the second quarter. The Mustangs adjusted their scheme and locked in on Ifanse, allowing the spectacular freshman to just 13 more rushing yards on five carries the rest of the game.
But untimely turnovers and an inability to answer the miscues with defensive stops pushed Cal Poly to its 11th league loss in its last 14 outings. Montana State evened its league record at 3-3, moving to 5-4 overall. Cal Poly is now 2-4 in league, 3-6 overall.
“It’s been our same thing the entire year between tackling and gap security on defense and open gaps means guys are running for 55-yard touchdowns,” Cal Poly 10th-year head coach Tim Walsh said. “I’m not going to lie to you: even the games people think we lost big, we moved the ball against everybody. Giving the ball up for touchdowns and giving up touchdowns like that, you aren’t going to win games. At some point in time, we have to learn the lesson.”
Protheroe, Cal Poly’s peerless All-American senior fullback, rushed 36 times for 215 yards and two touchdowns. The effort marked his seventh straight game of at least 30 carries, his seventh straight game with more than 100 yards and his third 200-yard outing this season.
Protheroe had a 25-yard run to set up his second touchdown early in the second quarter to cut MSU’s lead to 21-14 despite MSU scoring on its first three scoring drives. Protheroe also had a 70-yard burst to answer Andersen’s 49-yard touchdown run and set up Jenkins’ second touchdown to keep the Mustangs within two touchdowns.
Jenkins rushed for a season-high 138 yards on a season-high 30 carries, setting a career high with the three touchdowns. Cal Poly finished with 369 yards on 69 carries, averaging 5.3 yards per rush despite Montana State’s salty effort defensively.
“It’s fun playing against that once a year but I wouldn’t want to go against it every game,” Montana State junior safety Brayden Konkol said after playing against Cal Poly for the first time in his career. “Your eyes gotta be right, your footwork gotta be right, you have to be perfect on every play or they will squeak one out. They did a couple of times.
“I thought in the beginning of the game, we did a good job but they kept coming.”
The Bobcats won the toss and chose to field the opening kick. In the second game with Matt Miller as the primary offensive play-caller, MSU marched 75 yards in eight plays, including four of the first five that included handoffs to Ifanse. Andersen hit Wilson Brott for his first catch of the season to set up a fly sweep pitch pass from Travis Jonsen to previously injured senior running back Logan Jones for a 17-yard touchdown to open the action. Montana State led from that point on.
MSU junior end Bryce Sterk tackled Protheroe for a loss on Cal Poly’s fifth play, mushing the option behind the sticks. CP’s first possession resulted in a punt. Ifanse danced in the hole, then sprinted to a 74-yard touchdown less than a minute later to take a 14-0 lead. Jonsen’s block sealed the edge and set up the score.
“You get it down, No. 8 (Humphre) misses a tackle, there’s not a lot behind him,” Choate said. “They were very, very aggressive in the run game. Our offensive line did a nice job of putting a hat on a hat. Isaiah at running back and Troy on some third downs where we got him loose, there’s not a lot behind him.
“You have Travis Jonsen blocking the corner for 40 yards down the field on that long touchdown by Isaiah, what a great individual effort by him.”
Jenkins ripped off runs of 12 and 20 yards to set up Protheroe’s first touchdown run to slice the gap to 14-7.
Andersen, who finished with 106 yards on just seven rushes, answered, ripping off a 51-yard touchdown run that included a hurdle/stiff arm before landing and showing his prodigious speed on his 12th rushing touchdown of the season.
Cal Poly tried to keep pace, scoring to cut the lead to 21-14 the third of four times the hard-charging Mustangs would cut the lead to seven before the end of the afternoon.
Andersen, one of the most unorthodox offensive weapons the Big Sky has ever seen, strung out a designed run to the Cal Poly sideline late in the second quarter. Cal Poly safety Kitu Humphrey took down Andersen low, twisting Andersen’s left knee. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound specimen gingerly jogged to the sideline, then the locker room to get examined by team trainers.
“I just kind of got dinged up a little bit, a knee or something, got rolled up or whatever,” Andersen said. “It was just kind of awkward. I tried to break it outside and got twisted up on a little bit, had to walk it off.
“Everyone on this team practices so hard and when you are off the field, you want to be back on because you think you owe the team to do your job and try to help the team win however you can.”
Wide receiver Kevin Kassis took over signal caller duties for a play, faking a handoff and ripping a 33-yard run up the Bobcat sideline to set up Jonsen’s three-yard touchdown to put Montana State ahead 28-14 with 2:42 until halftime.
Montana State finished the first half with true freshman Casey Bauman at the helm, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Nooksack Valley, Washington product’s first action of his career. He engineered a two-minute drill that set up Tristan Bailey’s missed 49-yard field goal attempt, completing his first pass to Kassis in the process.
“I know we didn’t get the field goal and I was frustrated by that but I thought it was awesome, a true freshman coming in, Isaiah said, ‘I’m going to make plays’, Casey completes a pass, gets us in field goal range, awesome job by that kid,” Choate said.
Montana State redshirt freshman Keaton Anderson smacked Ryan McNab on the opening kick return of the second half, forcing a fumble that Bobcat linebacker Dante Sparaco recovered on the Cal Poly 31.
Two plays later, Ifanse ripped off a 29-yard touchdown.
Down 35-14, Cal Poly ran Protheroe four straight times for 26 yards and possession near midfield. Then Jenkins fumbled the snap and MSU Buck end Kyle Finch recovered.
Two plays later, Ifanse raced to an almost identical 28-yard touchdown in which he showed his patient, vision and burst.
“It’s nice to get off the field in two plays. The offensive line appreciates that,” MSU left tackle Mitch Brott said. “We love the way he runs. He’s an aggressive runner, never goes down, fights for the extra yard. We are excited for him for the next few years.”
Jenkins threw the final touchdown of the third quarter from 15 yards out to slot back Drew Hernandez, then ran for three more to help the Mustangs close the gap.
Montana State’s only other score came on Andersen’s 49-yard jaunt in which he casually jogged the last 20 yards before appearing to tweak his knee again on the celebration of his league-leading 13th touchdown run of the year.
“I don’t put anything past 15,” Choate said. “He’s a pretty tough kid, a great competitor. They might tell him one thing, he might tell us another.”
Other than that jaunt, MSU had just 59 total yards after the lead ballooned to 28 points. The Bobcats ran just 57 total plays, 28 less than Cal Poly. But Ifanse’s capitalization, Andersen’s explosion and high-energy defense spearheaded by Konkol’s 14 tackles and boosted by senior Grant Collins’ 10 stops.
That’s why I’m the most frustrated, quite honestly: there’s a lot of guys who practice really hard every week who deserve an opportunity to get out there and compete and it’s not often you get up on a team three scores but we couldn’t take that one and put them away,” Choate said. “Credit them: great competitors on that side, too.”
MSU’s rushing total ranked behind just the 483-yard effort in a 1973 win over Fresno State, 458 yards in 1976 against Weber State and the 2012 win over North Dakota that included 436 rushing yards.
Ifanse’s record-setting day broke Aaron Mason’s record of 192 yards by a freshman in a 2006 win over Northern Arizona.
But for the Bobcats, the records were secondary to beginning November with a win they hope sparks a surge down the home stretch of the season.
“That was step one to our goal,” Konkol said. “We are trying to go 3-0. We just have to work on the finishing part. It’s nice to get the loss taste out of our mouth, two road losses that hurt. It’s nice to get a win.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.