Big Sky Conference

Montana State earns first FCS playoff bid since 2014, hosts Incarnate Word


BOZEMAN — For a good portion of the last calendar year, Jeff Choate has talked about Montana State’s quest for a breakthrough.

On Saturday in Missoula, the Bobcats rallied from a 22-7 fourth quarter deficit to defeat rival Montana 29-25 and break through into the Football Championship Subdivision postseason in the process.

“It would be large also, to get the opportunity to experience playoff football for the first time in a while at Montana State,” Choate said following his third straight win over the Griz.

“I think we have three losses against Top 10 teams (No. 2 seed Weber State, third-seeded Eastern Washington, No. 5 seed South Dakota State) and one that coulda, shoulda, woulda. But I’m telling you man, I don’t think anyone wants to play this team. I think we are going to be a tough out if we get in this tournament. And I think it’s a team that is deserving of the opportunity.”

MSU’s third straight win over the Griz extended MSU’s current winning streak to three games and gives MSU that opportunity. Montana State hosts Incarnate Word on Saturday in Bozeman. The winner of the first-round FCS playoff game will advance to face undefeated and top-seeded North Dakota State, winners of six of the last seven national championships. Kickoff Saturday is at 1 p.m. from Bobcat Stadium.

After a rocky October that included blowing a 17-7 lead at Weber and falling short in a 24-17 loss at Idaho State, Choate reshuffled his offensive coaching staff and helped the Bobcats surge into the postseason for the first time since 2014.

“(It is) a lot of heavy lifting, it really is,” Choate said in an interview with Jay Sanderson, the Voice of the Bobcats. “I can’t say enough about the group of people we have here, our coaching staff, our families, and these young men that bought into the vision and the culture we’re trying to create here. This is a big step in the right direction for us as a program.”

Former Montana State quarterback Dakota Prukop (5)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State last hosted a playoff in the first round of the FCS playoffs in 2014. Coming off a 34-7 lambasting at the hands of the Griz in Missoula, a hobbled Dakota Prukop quarterbacked Montana State to 40 points in a driving snow storm but MSU had no answer for Zach Zenner, who scored touchdowns of 45, 60 and two of 69 yards in a five-touchdown performance in which the future NFL running back amassed over 300 yards from scrimmage.

Now Montana State prepares to face Incarnate Word, a team from the Southland Conference who started its football program as a Division II member in 2009 and moved up to the FCS in 2013. The Cardinals went 6-4 this season, including 6-2 in Southland play. UIW’s 11th game against Iowa State earlier this season was cancelled and is rescheduled for the week after the playoffs.

The Cardinals had a winning record their first year playing FCS football as an independent in 2013, going 6-5. Two of those wins came over Division II opponents and two more came over NAIA schools. Incarnate Word also lost its season finale 7-0 to Division II Angelo State that season.

UIW’s best season since joining the Southland in 2014 came in 2015. The Cardinals went 6-5, winning five Southland games. In Larry Kennan’s last two seasons as head coach in 2016 and 2017, UIW won four combined games, including a 1-10 record last season.

In Eric Morris’ first season at the helm, the San Antonio, Texas school shared the Southland title and earned its first ever FCS playoff berth. UIW is one of three teams from the league in the playoff field. Nicholls State (8-3) hosts Pioneer Football League champion San Diego (9-2). Lamar (7-4) travels to Missouri Valley power Northern Iowa (6-5) in the first round next weekend.

“I know they’re in San Antonio, Texas, and I know they’ve been playing football for just a short time. But I also know that, I think (the late Tom Benson) who’s the (former) owner of the New Orleans Saints, he’s pumped a ton of money into their athletic program and they want to be FBS, so they’ve invested strongly into their football program, not unlike what Kennesaw State has done,” Choate said. “So they’re very much an up-and-coming program, and they’re in the state of Texas so you know they’re going to have some talent.”

Benson, who passed away in March, and his family have “long been ardent supporters of Incarnate Word,” according to his personal Wikipedia page. The Gayle and Tom Benson Stadium officially opened on campus September 1, 2008, when the Bensons joined with more than 2,000 Cardinals fans and athletes to declare the facility ready for action.

Montana junior quarterback Dalton Sneed (11) is sacked by Montana State junior defensive end Bryce Sterk (37)/ by Jason Bacaj

Choate has familiarity with Morris as well. The former Texas Tech inside wide receiver is from Mike Leach’s coaching tree. Morris played for Leach from 2004 until 2008 before spending a few seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.

Morris took a graduate assistant job on Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Houston in 2010. He and Choate were both on Leach’s first staff at Washington State in 2012. Morris coached inside wide receivers, Choate coached linebackers.

“Eric and I’s offices were close to each other, we actually spent a lot of time talking, and we had a pretty good relationship there,” Choate said.

In 2013, Morris took a job as the co-offensive coordinator at Texas Tech on Kliff Kingsbury’s staff. From 2014 to 2017, Morris served as Kingsbury’s primary OC, helping lead some of the nation’s most prolific offenses and helping develop current Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Incarnate Word’s statistics reflect Morris’ background. The Cardinals averaged 493.3 yards per game this season, including 323.7 passing yards per contest. Quarterback Jon Copeland has thrown for 2,984 yards and 22 touchdowns this season as UIW has averaged 34.3 points per game.

“I think it’s just about your weekly preparation,” Choate said of preparing for the playoffs. “This is our routine, this is what we do as football coaches, as football players. You celebrate a victory on Saturday night, you get up on Sunday, you blow it out of your system, you go back to work on Monday. So that’s what we’re going to do, (and I’m) excited to have the opportunity to keep coaching.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved. 

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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