BOZEMAN, Montana — Jeff Choate put a timeline on the quarterback competition that has been raging at Montana State basically since MSU lost in the Round of 16 of the FCS playoffs to eventual national champion North Dakota State.
On his team’s first day of fall camp, MSU’s fourth-year head coach said he wanted to name a starter ideally following Montana State’s first scrimmage of fall camp. The Bobcats take the field at Bobcat Stadium for that scrimmage today, Saturday, August 10.
The timeline tentatively remains.
“We had a discussion in our staff today and we have to let it play out,” Choate said on Thursday. “We have to keep an open mind and see what the next few days bring, have a discussion on Sunday and see if we are ready to make a decision. I would like to do that. I think that’s what’s best for our team. But it has to be warranted.
“We need to see how these guys respond with the bullets flying for real. Do I have my mind made up right now? The answer is no. I have a very open mind going into Saturday and we will see where it falls. I’m hopeful there is a clear choice for us to make but if there’s not, we will continue to move forward the way we have.”
Through a little more than a week of fall practices, sophomore Tucker Rovig and redshirt freshman Casey Bauman have taken turns operating the Bobcat starting offense. Early on, Rovig struggled with his accuracy and decision-making but Choate has praised the Boise native for his performances during MSU’s “play-it” practices at Bobcat Stadium, which are closed to the media.
“I think it was the third practice that was a rough one for us but we’ve continued to bounce back and excel every single day, get better and better,” Rovig said.
“I come in every single day to compete my butt off, do my best and show what I’m capable of doing.”
Bauman has been a work in progress in terms of his ability to grasp the offense and operate efficiently in his decision-making. But he’s show intangible leadership skills, a strong confidence in the way he carries himself and an elite arm for the FCS level.
“I think it’s a very tight competition, very level,” Choate said Thursday. “When you start looking at the statistical part of it, there’s some guys who have some advantages but you have to equate it whether it was a 7-on-7 period, a live period, a team period. But that consistency should be present. I think the most true test will be on Saturday.”
Choate went on to say that Saturday the quarterbacks would be live, meaning they would not wear red non-contact jerseys and could be tackled by their defensive teammates. The 6-foot-5, 205-pound Rovig and the 6-foot-7, 235-pound Bauman are both decently mobile for their size, although neither can compare to the electric athleticism shown by two-year starter Chris Murray or bulldozing, lightning fast phenom Troy Andersen, Montana State’s last two starting quarterbacks.
Being able to avoid pressure and get the ball out quickly will be part of the evaluation for each candidate. Choate has also said command of the huddle, leadership on the field and in the locker room, confidence engendered by the quarterback from his teammates and a priority on taking care of the football will also go into the decision.
“I think really all five QBs are doing a nice job so far,” MSU second-year offensive coordinator and first-year quarterbacks coach Matt Miller on August 3. “My challenge to them is to go compete every single day and to be better than they were the day before. I think all five have done that.
“I think Casey did a good job Friday and carried it over into today. But he made some small mistakes. I think Tucker yesterday, he wasn’t making the throws he was today. I was really proud of him stepping up and taking the coaching to heart and improving today and paying attention to those details.”
Last season after it became apparent that Murray’s academics would keep him on the sideline for his junior year, Choate and his staff turned up the pressure on Rovig in hopes that he would “rise up and take the starting job,” Choate said. But Rovig could not find the confidence or authority to become MSU’s man under center.
Instead, Andersen, a high school quarterback at Dillon who played running back and linebacker as a true freshman in 2017, rose up and won the job during fall camp last year.
“Coming into that competition, we’d already made the decision we were going to put Troy there,” Choate said. “I think Tucker was a pretty smart kid and he probably realized I was going to force the issue with that regardless of what happened and he didn’t play with a lot of confidence early in fall camp last year.
“He really came on toward the end. Like I told him, ‘If you would’ve played that way over a three and a half week period, you might’ve been the guy.’ But he didn’t. I think he’s in a different place mentally and has more confidence.”
Last season, Andersen set a Big Sky record by rushing for 1,412 yards and an MSU record with 21 rushing touchdowns. But Choate has talked all of 2019 about the necessity for Montana State to “be more diverse on offense” if the team is going to take the next step from playoff qualifier to Big Sky title contender.
“That’s what we are stressing in our meetings – we want to attack the ball vertically down the field in the pass game,” said Miller, a record-setting wide receiver at Boise State and a former Montana Gatorade Player of the Year who prepped at Helena Capital. “We are a downhill run team so we want to throw the ball vertically. Coach Choate stresses it. And those young guys are embracing it.”
Andersen broke his non-throwing hand in MSU’s 26-23 season-opening win over Western Illinois. He did not play on offense against South Dakota State the following week, instead forcing Rovig into his first career start. Rovig struggled in the first half and MSU fell down 35-0 in what ended up a 45-14 whooping.
The following week, Rovig had the best game of his career, completing 23 of 34 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns in MSU’s 47-24 win over Wagner. Andersen returned under center to lead the Bobcats to a 43-23 win at Portland State to open Big Sky play.
“In Tucker’s case, it’s all going to come down to consistency,” Choate said on August 3. “Like I was telling Matt, when he’s in the flow — and you kind of saw that in the Wagner game and sort of in the second half of the South Dakota State game — when he’s in the flow, he looks really good. He’s confident, he’s rolling. There’s days where it’s just like, “What’s going on?’ Ball’s not coming off my hand right. I don’t know if it’s a mental thing. I don’t know if it’s fatigue. But we need to see that consistency.”
By mid-October, the MSU coaching staff had continued pushing Rovig to take the job from Andersen. During the Bobcats’ bye week, Rovig suffered a freak foot injury that caused him to miss the rest of the season. Andersen started every game at quarterback during Big Sky play and into the FCS playoffs.
“I think we were going to start Tucker,” Choate said. “That wasn’t even a conversation. Troy was beat up at that point to be honest with you. He broke his hand in game 1 and there was a lot of stuff that you don’t know about. We were to the point where we have to manage him a little more and we were ready to turn it over to Tucker.
“That doesn’t mean that Troy wouldn’t have had a role in that quarterback position. That’s still his primary role. But as far as the guy who was going to take every snap, that wasn’t him moving forward until that happened to Tucker’s foot.”
Bauman only played one series and only threw on pass last season, maintaining his redshirt instead. The former small-school standout at Nooksack Valley High in Northwestern Washington has faced a learning curve adjusting to the speed of Division I football. But his ceiling is a high as any quarterback in the league or the FCS.
“As a team since the spring, we have completely progressed together,” Bauman said. “Summer is a huge time for us. Everyone is here in the summer, we are all doing player-run practices. I think the offense is coming together. Every day we are going against one of the best defenses in the Big Sky which is a great challenge.”
Saturday, Montana State will gain more clarity. Regardless of who is anointed the starter for MSU’s season opener at Texas Tech on August 31, the pecking order behind him will be equally important.
“It’s the next man up mentality no matter what position you play but probably one of the most prepared guy on the entire roster has to be the No. 2 quarterback,” Choate said. “At any moment, that guy becomes the guy. It’s not like he is going in to cover a kick for somebody or play Sam linebacker. He becomes the focal point of the offense. The expectation whether you are the 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, you are preparing like you are going to be the No. 1.”