Close but no cigar: The saying is becoming all too familiar for the Montana State Bobcats.
With a new offensive coordinator in place and a desperate attitude after another close loss last week at Weber State, MSU went to Pocatello, Idaho for what the Bobcats hoped would be the first game in a winning streak to end the season and end Montana State’s playoff drought.
The Bobcats fell behind 24-7 against an equally hungry Bengals’ squad that entered the game with an identical 4-3 record. The Bobcats won the fourth quarter 10-0 but lost the game, 24-17 in front of 8,851 at Holt on Saturday afternoon.
The early deficit stemmed from several mistakes, including a failed fake punt in the first half and pair of missed field goals.
But has been the case throughout the duration of the Jeff Choate era, the Bobcats buckled down defensively and rallied back. Two weeks after rallying for a 24-23 win over Idaho and a week after blowing a 17-7 lead in a 34-24 loss at No. 7 Weber State, MSU rallied to within a touchdown but couldn’t finish the comeback.
MSU entered the fourth quarter trailing by 17 points. But the visitors turned a Jalen Cole forced fumble into a 33-yard touchdown by sophomore quarterback Troy Andersen to cut the lead to 10. Jahque Alleyne forced fumble leding to a 43-yard bomb thrown by Andersen and caught by junior Kevin Kassis set up Tristan Bailey’s 20-yard field goal, his only hit of the day after missing a pair of kicks from 40-plus earlier in the day. That cut the lead to 24-17 with eight minutes, 24 seconds left to play.
MSU forced another punt, taking over down a touchdown with 5:28 left. A 41-yard Isaiah Ifanse run got the Bobcats to the edge of Bailey’s range but the Bobcats needed a TD. With possession on the ISU 16 yard line, the Bobcats got flagged for holding.
Two plays later, Aren Manu sacked Andersen, setting up a 2nd and 23 for the Bobcat offense. On fourth down, Andersen found sophomore Lance McCutcheon for a 21-yard gain, two less than MSU needed to move the sticks for the 21st time on Saturday. Instead, the Bobcats fell just short again.
“We thought we had a great play call there, Lance popped open and we knew we had to get 22 yards,” Andersen said. “That’s a lot to ask. He put a great effort in, made a move and we did our best.”
A pair of kneel downs from Idaho State quarterback Tanner Gueller and the Bengals found themselves in the thick of the playoff race entering November for the first time in a long time. And the Bobcats found themselves painted into a corner after yet another near rally.
“It seemed like one of the first times we have been down and we fought back, rallied back,” Kassis said after hauling in eight passes for 83. “That’s one positive we can take out of this. It didn’t come out the way we wanted it to come out but I applaud the o-line, Troy and the defense for having two great takeaways at the end. That’s a great effort and it’s unfortunate but that’s football.”
The win moves Idaho State to 4-1 in Big Sky play, 5-3 overall. The Bengals will have to win out to get to seven Division I wins. But an eight-win ISU team with a 7-1 Big Sky record could earn the league’s auto bid to the playoffs.
“Bengals are 4-1 (in Big Sky play), 4-0 at home,” ISU second-year head coach Rob Phenicie said unsolicited before going in on his team in critical fashion.
“We played horrible, absolutely terrible, turnovers, that can’t happen. We have to play better if we want to take this thing any further. We have a lot to improve on this week.
“A win is a win but we have to play better. We can’t go up 21 points and then all of a sudden make it a nail biter. Championship teams can’t do that. That’s not what we are going to do. We had too many stupid penalties, undisciplined penalties (four for 42 yards) that angered me to death. We have to fix this stuff. “
The game had equally impactful but far less positive results for a Montana State team trying to snap a variety of streaks. The Bobcats are now 2-3 in league play following their second straight league loss. MSU is 4-4 overall, outside the FCS playoff picture. Montana State will have to win its remaining three games — home dates against Cal Poly and Northern Colorado before a season-finale in Missoula against Montana — and likely need help to snap a streak that dates back to 2014 of missing the postseason.
“It didn’t come down to the play-calling, it came down to the Cats, us on the field,” Kassis said. “We made mistakes. I thought Coach Miller put us in really good spots and allowed us to have a lot of opportunities that we need to capitalize on on the field. That’s what his job is to do: to set us up for success. He did that I thought.”
In the first game under new offensive coordinator Matt Miller, Montana State marched 75 yards on 14 plays, a drive that lasted 6:41 and ended on Travis Jonsen’s third rushing touchdown this season from one yard out.
Montana State forced a punt after just five plays and 70 seconds of ISU’s league-leading offense. The Bobcats ran 13 plays for 54 yards to the ISU 29. But Bailey’s 46-yard field goal hit the left upright.
Before that attempt, Bailey had a season-long of 50 yards and had hit 10 of his 11 field goal attempts this season. His first long try had the distance but not the accuracy.
“I thought Matt did an excellent job, found some rhythm, moved the ball really affectively but at times we stalled in the red zone,” Choate said after his team notched 20 first downs,425 yards of total offense and possessed the ball for nearly 34 minutes.
Idaho State had the ball for just 2:38 in the first quarter and Montana State had a 7-0 lead. Then Idaho State’s offense got on track. Gueller led a nine-play drive capped by a 38-yard field goal by Campbell Sheidow to get the Bengals on the scoreboard.
Gueller led two touchdown drives in the second quarter as the ISU offense ran 27 plays for 153 yards and notched nine first downs in the 17-point frame. Gueller completed all six of his passes and senior running back James Madison capped the march with his 11th touchdown of the season from seven yards out.
That score put Idaho State up 10-7 with 6:18 left in the first half. After three unproductive plays, MSU lined up for a punt but instead called a fake. Punter Jered Padmos’ pass was errant although intended receiver Brayden Konkol was open.
“We couldn’t have gotten a better look,” Choate said. “We practice that every single week all the way back to fall camp. That’s a staple for us. What we are looking for is what they gave us. It couldn’t have been dialed up any better. Probably got a little bit excited he was so wide open. He just put a little too much air on the ball and we didn’t make a play.
“We wanted to call an aggressive game going in and when you are backed up and you are somewhere around midfield and it’s time to call that type of play, usually you don’t get the look you want and we got the exact look we wanted. We just didn’t execute.”
Seven plays and 42 yards later — including a crazy underhand pass while getting tackled on a fourth down try by Gueller to running back Ty Flanagan that extended the drive — Gueller hit Austin Campbell for the tight end’s fifth touchdown catch this season from nine yards out to extend the hosts’ lead to 17-7.
“’Is his knee down, is his knee not down’, I don’t know but a tremendous individual play by him,” Choate said. “They are a very talented offensive football team.”
Montana State’s first possession of the second half ended after two plays when Troy Andersen threw an interception picked by Adkin Aguirre, giving the Bengals the ball 33 yards from the end-zone. Gueller, who complied 18-of-29 passes for 218 yards, hit Demonte Horton twice in a row, including for a four-yard touchdown pass for ISU’s final score with 11:16 left in the third quarter.
On the final drive of the third quarter, Montana State held the ball for 6:36, gaining 71 yards in 15 plays to the Idaho State 23. A pair of penalties put the Bobcats into a 3rd & 14. An incomplete pass brought on Bailey for his second try, this one from 41 yards out. He missed wide left.
“I thought the two missed field goals played consequential in the outcome of this game because the scoring margin had an impact in how we had to call the game down the stretch,” Choate said.
From that point, MSU’s defense forced two fumbles, gave up just three first downs and allowed ISU to gain just 83 yards on 18 plays. But Montana State fell just short once again.
“The defense rose to the occasion over and over again, forced turnovers, got critical stops, had our backs to the wall a handful of times,” Choate said.
Montana State have now played 16 games decided by eight points or less under Choate’s guidance. MSU is 8-8 in those games. But just three of those victories, including two against the rival Griz, came over teams with winning records.
“We came alive a little bit late and our defense kept us close,” Andersen said after throwing for 173 yards and rushing for 106, keeping pace with Madison by scoring his league-best 11th touchdown this season. “Sometimes we have to do a little bit more.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.