BOZEMAN — Jeff Choate has coached in a few of the top leagues in college football, spending time in the Mountain West, SEC and Pac 12. With an array of standout players spread out across the entire Power 5, Choate remembers how hard it is to win each league’s weekly player of the week honors.
Now Montana State’s third-year head coach is experiencing something similar in the Big Sky Conference.
“I say this all the time: this is a hard league to get a player of the week award in because you’ve got 13 teams in this league and everybody has good players,” Choate said. “Statistically, it’s almost like getting SEC Player of the Week. That’s hard to do. You have to be pretty good.”
In Montana State’s 49-42 win over Cal Poly on Saturday, MSU true freshman tailback Isaiah Ifanse was more than pretty good. The former Washington Gatorade Player of the Year was record-setting.
Ifanse rushed for 227 yards, the most by a freshman in the Big Sky since North Dakota’s John Santiago rushed for 230 yards in a 44-38 win over Montana State in 2015.
Ifanse’s total shattered Aaron Mason’s 2006 record of 192 for the most rushing yards gained in a single game by a Montana State freshman. Ifanse’s total was the seventh-highest in the history of Bobcat football.
On Monday, the Big Sky announced Ifanse was the league’s Offensive Player of the Week.
“He’s a good little player,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said following the loss. “What I really liked about him as a player is he’s very patient. He was really patient in trying to see us make a mistake and then find a lane and he got north and south after that. Give him some credit, give their offensive line some credit and obviously give us some discredit because we have to play better.”
Despite battling a cumbersome hamstring for the second half of his first college season, Ifanse has been one of the best rookie running backs to play at Montana State. His 200-yard game was his fourth time over 100 yards this season. He has 713 yards on 123 carries, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. He scored three touchdowns Saturday, giving him seven this season.
“The best part about Isaiah is he’ll be the first one to say, ‘I didn’t have to do much, my o-line did most of it’,” Choate said. “He’s an awesome kid. He is so patient. Some of the runs he made, he wasn’t touched on them but that was because he set some things up in the holes and then burst out of it. He hasn’t been 100 percent healthy since Week 2 and has been limited in practice most of the weeks so for him to be able to go out and produce that way says a lot about who he is.”
The 5-foot-10, 192-pounder scored a 74-yard touchdown run on Montana State’s second possession of the game to stake the Bobcats to a 14-0 lead.
Coming out of halftime leading 28-14, MSU redshirt freshman Keaton Anderson forced a fumble on Cal Poly’s opening kick return that the Bobcats covered. Two plays later, Ifanse used vision and explosion to press the hole, then explode for a 28-yard touchdown.
MSU forced another turnover. Two plays later, Ifanse almost replicated his previous touchdown run, this one from 29 yards out to put MSU up 42-14.
“It was just designed inside zone and our offensive line did a great job of rolling off the ball and killing them on the run game. Isaiah was flying to the holes and he made big plays,” MSU sophomore quarterback Troy Andersen said following Montana State’s fifth win.“Isaiah is a super tough kid and a great runner. I’m glad we have him on our team.”
All of a sudden, Ifanse is in the thick of the Big Sky’s Freshman of the Year race. Weber State redshirt freshman tailback Josh Davis is likely the frontrunner. The former Utah Gatorade Player of the Year is third in the Big Sky with 935 yards. He has six touchdowns, tied for sixth in the league but behind Ifanse.
Davis is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and his rushing yard total accounts for all but 293 of Weber’s rushing yards and has accounted for nearly 40 percent of WSU’s yards from scrimmage this season.
UC Davis redshirt freshman running back Ulonzo Gilliam was one of the leaders for top freshmen honors but gained just seven yards on two carries in UCD’s 42-20 win over Northern Arizona last week. Still, his 12 touchdowns are second in the league behind just Andersen. Gilliam has rushed for 588 yards and nine touchdowns while catching 34 passes for 282 yards and three more scores.
Andersen has been the focal point of MSU’s offense all season. The converted running back is averaging nearly eight yards per carry and needs just 12 yards to go over 1,000 for the season. His 13 rushing touchdowns lead the league and are the most total touchdowns as well.
For most of Big Sky play, the MSU offensive coaching staff called an abundance of zone read option plays, most of which Andersen chose to keep the ball. Because Andersen twisted his knee in the second quarter against Cal Poly and because the MSU coaching staff found a weakness against inside zone handoffs leading up to the game, new offensive coordinator Matt Miller called Ifanse’s number 23 times.
“The rookie responded. He ranks ninth in the league in rushing yards. Chris Murray set MSU’s single-season rushing record for a freshman in 2016. The quarterback rushed for 890 yards and 12 touchdowns in winning Big Sky Freshman of the Year. Andersen won the award last year. If Ifanse continues to produce like he has so far in Big Sky play (92 yards per game), Murray’s record is in reach and so is MSU’s third straight top freshman accolade.
“He’s a bad dude, man,” 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.”
Idaho State’s Christian Holland, a senior linebacker for the Bengals, earned the Big Sky’s weekly defensive award. He made key plays in the final minutes of Idaho State’s 48-45 road win at Portland State. He had 10 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery in the victory. Holland’s sack and fumble recovery came in the final three plays of the game to help ISU preserve the win.
Idaho’s Jalen Hoover was the league’s Special Teams Player of the Week. Hoover had good hand-eye control in Idaho’s game on special teams, as he blocked a punt in the fourth quarter versus Top 25 North Dakota. With 8:16 remaining in the game and Idaho down by 10 points, Hoover dove in front of the punter to block the punt as the kicker never had a chance to boot the ball due to the safety’s quick speed. Hoover’s teammate Connor Whitney scooped it up and ran the three yards into the end zone for the score and giving the Vandals the momentum they needed to push on and pick up the 31-27 win.
Other Nominees for ROOT SPORTS Offensive Player of the Week: Joe Protheroe, CP; Eric Barriere, EWU; Jeff Cotton, UI; Michael Dean, ISU; Dalton Sneed, UM; Judd Cockett, SUU; Josh Davis, WSU.
Other Nominees for ROOT SPORTS Defensive Player of the Week: D’londo Tucker, EWU; D.J. Henderson, UI; Josh Buss, UM; Sherand Boyd Jr., UNC; Taylor Nelson, SUU; Landon Stice, WSU.
Other Nominees for ROOT SPORTS Special Teams Player of the Week: Roldan Alcobendas, EWU; Campbell Sheidow, ISU; Jerry Louie-McGee, UM; Rashaan Miller, SUU.