The central storyline surrounding the Montana State football program for the duration of Jeff Choate’s tenure has been the team’s seemingly endless search for a quarterback.
It seemed only fitting then that Saturday’s action at Bobcat Stadium — the first of any kind in nearly a calendar year — put MSU’s latest potential leader under center into a position to prove himself.
In a live action session that lasted two hours, eight minutes on a blustery Bozeman afternoon mostly dominated by defensive play and impressive punts, Blue team quarterback Matt McKay and his offense found themselves with possession, a 14-7 deficit and 2:12 to play.
McKay, an athletic and heralded 6-foot-4, 208-pound former transfer from North Carolina State, is the latest FBS drop-down brought in by Choate and his staff. Tyler Bruggman only started for half of a season. Travis Jonsen made the move to wide receiver early in his Bobcat career.
The team has been guided by largely unlikely or unorthodox options in Choate’s first four seasons, including Troy Andersen’s first-team All-Big Sky Conference cameo at QB during MSU’s run to the 2018 playoffs. The 2016 and 2017 seasons were filled with highlights and headaches stemming from the electric yet erratic operation Chris Murray.
Last season, Casey Bauman beat out Tucker Rovig for the starting job only to give way to Rovig before Big Sky Conference play started. The Bobcats lost consecutive contests to Sacramento State and North Dakota to sit at 5-3 only to see Rovig turn a corner, sparking a six-game winning streak that propelled MSU into the semifinals of the FCS playoffs.
Still, Jeff Choate and his staff elected to bring in McKay, a former blue-chip recruit who started five games at NC State.
On Saturday afternoon, McKay looked inaccurate early then sharp late, operating a two-minute drill that got the Blue team offense within four yards of a game-tying touchdown in the waning seconds of the action. If McKay’s progress and opportunity were fitting, so was the way Saturday’s “Fall Brawl” ended.
On fourth down four yards from the goal line, McKay scrambled for several seconds before firing into coverage. The ball was tipped before landing in the hands of junior linebacker Tadan Gilman, one of a handful of MSU inside ‘backers who highlighted a session mostly dominated by defense.
“I thought both the 2-minute and the stop were good,” Choate said. “We haven’t had a chance to do that.
“I’m really happy we got into that two-minute situation because there is so much learning that can we can take away from that.
“For being really the first game-like situation there, I thought it went well. I thought Matt extended some plays and did some really nice things for us and it came down to one play. And the defense made it.”
During the first half of action — Montana State’s first real performance since losing 42-14 at eventual and perennial national champion North Dakota State — any sort yardage, except from freshman Bryce Leighton’s booming punts, came at a premium.
The White team — featured quarterbacks junior Tucker Rovig and true freshman Tommy Mellott — and the Blue team — quarterbacked by McKay, redshirt freshman Blake Thelen and sophomore Casey Bauman — rotated personnel and traded turns early, each possession ending in an impressive punt by Leighton, who came to MSU as a high school All-American.
Bauman was the first Bobcat quarterback to find a rhythm. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound specimen drove the Blue team offense into the red-zone early in the second quarter by completing three of his first four passes. He finished the day with arguably the most consistent production of any of the five quarterbacks to take snaps. That first red-zone appearance, which ended in a Lane Sumner touchdown, served as the blue team’s only score of the afternoon.
“Casey has had a really good fall camp and it’s a very interesting quarterback battle,” Choate said. “You can see the different quarterback skill sets. I think Casey has a really good connection with the huddle. I think he showed toughness today. He took some shots, hung in there, made some plays for us and has consistently been a guy who has moved our offense throughout the course of fall camp.”
On the ensuing White team possession, Rovig hit his first impressive completion of the afternoon, threading the needle to leaping redshirt freshman Jaden Smith for a gain into Blue team territory. The following play, sophomore Mark Estes ripped off a 16-yard gain inside the 10-yard line, punctuating the run by trucking junior defensive back James Campbell, who is a converted wide receiver.
One play later, true freshman running back Elijah Elliot broke a few tackles and waltzed into the end-zone for a nine-yard touchdown to tie the game 7-7 with 4:38 left in the first half.
“I thought today was very much what I expected,” Choate said. “I thought it was very well drafted because it was very well-balanced.
Montana State defensive coordinator Kane Ioane served as the head coach of the White team. MSU offensive coordinator Justin Udy led the Blue team. Defensive line coach Byron Hout, wide receivers coach Erik Frazier, offensive line coach Brian Armstrong and graduate assistant Austin Ybarra made up Ioane’s staff. Tight ends coach Nate Potter, running backs coach Jimmy Beal, secondary coach Kyle Risinger, linebackers coach Bobby Daly,
and GA Jonathan Amosa made up Udy’s staff.
“I was impressed with our tackling,” Choate said. “I thought our tackling was pretty good. I thought there might’ve been some more explosive plays, but for the most part, tackling was efficient and the competition was pretty good.
“I don’t think we set football back 100 years today. But the energy was great and our kids were excited to be out there and play. It came right down to the wire, just like Bobcat football. You’ve gotta stick around until the fourth quarter.”
Following the second quarter touchdown exchange, the defense owned the day until the final four minutes of the scrimmage. The first big defensive plays came from MSU junior inside linebacker Callahan O’Reilly , a Bozeman product who led the Bobcats in tackles last season. He had two tackles at or near the line of scrimmage to set up the White’s first two punts. He also flushed Mellott, setting up a near sack by junior defensive lineman Byron Rollins that led to a punt.
Montana State’s defense must find replacements for all-conference defensive linemen Bryce Sterk and Derek Marks along with new safeties to replace the all-league duo of Brayden Konkol and Jahque Alleyne.
But the MSU linebacker unit returns largely in tact, although standout senior outside linebackers Troy Andersen and Daniel Hardy did not participate on Saturday.
O’Reilly led a group of inside linebackers that also featured standout sessions by senior Michael Jobman, sophomore Nolan Askelson, junior Tadan Gillman and true freshman Danny Uluilakepa,.
Jobman, a senior from Huntley Project, had the first and only takeaway by the Blue defense late in the first quarter when he intercepted Rovig.
O’Reilly stuck MSU redshirt freshman Jaharie Martin near the goal line late in the fourth quarter before Martin scored on the next play for the eventual final margin of victory.
Askelson, a sophomore who started about half of MSU’s 15 games a year ago, had two tackles at or near the line of scrimmage in the first half and was solid for the White defense all day.
And Gilman was all over the field, making tackles in the backfield, in open space and snaring an interception on McKay’s final throw to seal the victory for the White team.
“Today was fun, being able to put on the pads, go full contact,” said Ty Okada, a fourth-year junior defensive back expected to play an elevated role next season. “You don’t get to do that a whole lot during a camp. It was not your normal game-day atmosphere but I thought our guys did a really good job of bringing their own energy. We made it fun, ran some trick plays and made it a good time.”
Even Uluilakepa got in on the action, intercepting a Bauman pass with 4:12 left and returning it inside the red-zone to set up the White team’s decisive score.
“That’s been a really good group for us,” Choate said when asked about the inside linebackers. “I think that Coach (Bobby) Daly has done a nice job of really solidifying that group and creating a lot of competition there. Blake Flovin has had a really good fall practice for us as well. We feel like we have two to three-deep at that inside linebacker position and that can really benefit us.”
The Bobcat defense forced four takeaways overall. Junior safety Jeffrey Manning Jr. joined Jobman, Uluilakepa and Gilman with interceptions.
“Jeff made a phenomenal play, read the quarterback’s eyes on that interception,” Okada siad. “We’ve seen that out of him the entire camp so I’m not surprised. He’s an amazing player and I love playing next to him.
“Overall as a defense, as you can see, the White team came away with the win and who had more turnovers? The White team. It was a super big deal to steal possessions like that in a game with a running clock.”
Following Uluilakepa’s pick, the White team assumed possession at 18 yards from the end-zone. One of the most crucial plays of the game came when Rovig mishandled Joey McElroy’s snap. Martin, a burly 5-foot-10, 238-pounder from Lakeland, Florida, recovered the fumble and gained several yards down inside the 2-yard line.
On the next play, Martin lept for the end-zone, was met in the air by O’Reilly, yet still managed to cross the goal line for the game winner.
“That whole drive, I was actually like cramping up in my left calf, so I was like, ‘C’Mon, we have to get in there’, then the previous play before the touchdown, you saw we had a busted play, a fumbled snap and the play before that, Ty (Okada) stuffed me on the two or 3-yard line so I was like, ‘We gotta get in here!’” Martin said.
“My offensive tackle, Woody, Connor Wood, he was telling me like, ‘Hey, I know the play is coming this way, but I’m on the back-side, I got you.’ Pre-play, I’m already thinking I’m going to go up top. I knew they would come in low, I would go up high, money.
“I go to jump, nobody hits me, I planned on it so I was like, Dang. I stick the landing on my left leg and I reach the ball out and I’m looking at the ref. Touchdown. I was pretty excited about that.”
McKay hit Lance McCutcheon for a 20-yard gain to spark the two-minute drill, then hit Coy Steel for another 25 yards to move the Blue offense into the red-zone.
Junior college transfer defensive tackle Ben Seymour made his latest big play during a day filled with them to set up a 4th and 9 for McKay with 1:04 left. The Blue offense converted as McKay found junior Willie Patterson for a nine-yard gain to move the sticks.
With 37 seconds left, McKay again faced a 4th & 2. He hit Steel to move the chains, then ran the hurry-up and handed the ball to Sumner, who didn’t gain any yards. McKay then stopped the clock by spiking the ball with 14 seconds left. On third down, he rolled left and lofted a pass to McCutcheon that fell incomplete.
On fourth, McKay kept the play alive for several seconds before firing a pass into a host of defenders that was tipped before landing in Gilman’s hands.
“I love the red-zone mentality,” said Okada, who watched the stand from the sideline since he was on the Blue team. “Once you get down there, it’s really just summer weight training versus summer weight training and you really have to put your money where your mouth is. That’s fun as a defensive player.”
Saturday’s action essentially wraps up the on-field portion of what has certainly been among the most unusual off-seasons in college football history. During the spring of 2019, inclement Bozeman weather caused Choate to cancel a little more than half of his spring football practices. It didn’t hinder the Bobcats as MSU won 11 games and advanced to the FCS Final Four for the first time since 1984.
Choate pushed back the start of spring ball this year in hopes of getting in a full session. Instead, a global pandemic caused for a chaotic off-season that essentially cancelled MSU spring drills, mostly erased the Bobcats’ training blocks in the weight room and struggled to find consistency in the time the team spent practicing outside.
The last few weeks however, Montana State was able to find a groove and get a slate of practices in, which culminated with Saturday’s performance. If it’s possible to harness momentum coming out of this fall session, Montana State is going to do it’s best to do it moving into 2021.
“Those kids were excited to play and they went out and competed hard,” Choate said. “There were a lot of smiles on a lot of guys’ faces at the end.”