BOZEMAN — With the starting offensive unit backed up against the goal line and no room to breath, Montana State’s offensive line jumped off sides.
The penalty put the ball inside the offense’s own 2-yard line. It also set up a sequence that is symbolic of the growth Montana State hopes to see continue entering the 2017 season.
Chris Murray and his unit started fast to begin MSU’s first scrimmage of its 2017 fall camp. Murray found sophomore Kevin Kassis for a 44-yard catch and run on the first play of the sunny yet smoky afternoon. Junior running back Logan Jones bounced a stretch play outside for a 30-yard gain on the second snap. After the second strings took their first turn, the Bobcat starters went for Round 2 in what head coach Jeff Choate calls the “backed up” period; the offense starts from its own 2-yard line and no matter what it gains, starts there again on the next play, but loses a down.
The first two plays of the second starter series belonged to the defense as senior linebacker Mac Bignell swallowed up junior running Noah James for a loss on first down and a host of tacklers did not allow Jones to bust his second run outside. Then came the false start.
In 2016, inconsistencies, turnovers and an inability to consistently throw the ball doomed the Bobcat offense. In situations where adversity hit, Montana State often crumbled. With Murray, last season a true freshman, at the helm, Montana State ran the ball effectively mostly because of its quarterback’s special running ability. But the Bobcat offense could not do much else, resulting in a 4-7 season.
On Saturday, with the offense facing a third down and 14 yards to go with 98 yards in front of them, Murray made a throw that turned the heads of all the on-lookers in Bobcat Stadium. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound 18-year-old from Inglewood, California looked off a safety, planted his feet and threw a dart to a spot 15 yards up the field and two yards from the east sideline.
In rhythm, senior wide receiver Mitch Herbert stopped on a dime, cut a sharp turn to complete a crisp hitch route and found a perfectly thrown spiral waiting for him. The result of the play netted a first down. It also showed the progress MSU’s offensive unit has made since the end of last season.
“You can see Chris grow all the time,” MSU second-year head coach Jeff Choate said. “He still has a tremendously long way to go to be the finished product we would like him to be and that he wants to be. But you can see the growth.
“Ball is coming out now. He’s throwing with more authority. He’s making more quick decisions. Even when he’s escaping the pocket, those things aren’t taking quite as long. I think it’s a continuous process with him. We will be as good as he allows us to be because I do think we have some pieces around him.”
Murray, the reigning Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year, rushed for 860 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. On Saturday, he was sacked several times and did not get loose outside the pocket once, netting -16 rushing yards on six carries. But his improved arm strength, pocket poise, disciplined eyes both pre and post-snap and overall composure were on full display on this August afternoon.
“Chris is just an athlete and teams are going to load the box on him when they come to play so he is going to have to make those throws this year,” Bignell said. “He knows that’s expected of him now and he’s doing a great job with it.”
Although Murray actually showed flashes in the intermediate and deep passing games last season, he held on to the ball too long, particularly on timing routes and plays designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly with zip. That seems to be changing.
“He’s throwing the ball really well,” MSU senior captain strong safety Bryson McCabe said. “The corners were noticing, he’s hitting in certain spots now. The hitch, he’s throwing it to the outside. Sometimes, they are breaking to the outside and he throws it to the inside. He’s developing as a pocket passer. He can run, he’s fast but today, you saw him throw some very impressive balls.”
Murray completed 10-of-13 passes for 192 yards, including touchdowns of 13 yards to junior tight end Connor Sullivan and 68 yards to Herbert. On the touchdown to his new tight end weapon — Sullivan finished with three catches for 54 yards and two scores — Murray play-faked to his left, looked off a safety, rolled to his right and fired a dart to Sullivan, showing great patience and arm strength.
On his touchdown to Herbert, Murray stood tall in the pocket, again showing fortitude before stepping up and firing a strike to the senior captain, who beat man coverage and took advantage of McCabe falling down, sprinting past the defense for the last 40 yards of the scoring play.
“(Murray) displayed his growth in passing today,” Herbert, who finished with three catches for 93 yards, said following the 82-play session. “He’s really confident. He’s come a long way since last year from working all summer. It was great for him to do what he did today.
“We were really explosive in the passing game today and that’s a tribute to Chris.”
MSU’s offensive coaches consider an “explosive play” one that nets more than 14 yards. Montana State had 10 such plays on Saturday, including nine through the air. All told, the Bobcat quarterbacks completed 22-of-36 passes for 372 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Sophomore Brady McChesney threw a perfect ball after using his eyes to shift the safeties, hitting Sullivan on a seam route for a 28-yard touchdown, the first passing touchdown of the day during a session filled almost entirely with situational football.
Freshman Tucker Rovig hit classmate Willie Patterson for two long gains totaling 72 yards, exactly half of the 144 yards the 6-foot-5 Boise product threw for in his first live action. Rovig also showed deft touch on a back-shoulder fade that resulted in a 25-yard touchdown to sophomore Keon Stephens.He finished 7-of-11 for 144 yards.
The format of the scrimmage began with the offenses backed up against the goal line, followed by what Choate calls “play it”, a set of periods where the ball is placed at the far 40 and the offenses try to move the sticks. Junior transfer running back Edward Vander’s 3-yard touchdown run, Sullivan’s first TD catch and both of sophomore Gabe Peppenger’s field goals (28 and 40 yards) came during the red-zone period that followed.
“I think it’s good for our offense and defense to get in those situations because it happens every game, every year, happened to us last year many times: you get in those situations and you have to go win a football game,” MSU senior captain left tackle Dylan Mahoney said.
While the offense received praise from players and coaches alike — the unit also rushed for 206 yards aside from the sacks — the defense showed big-play ability following a slow start. To the ire of defensive line coach Byron Hout and secondary coach Mark Orphey on the sideline, Kassis’ opening long gain included a missed tackle. Jones’ first long run was spurred by sophomore defensive end Derek Marks not holding the edge. McCabe fell down on Herbert’s long touchdown. MSU’s slot receivers exploited Montana State’s safeties, starting and reserve, all afternoon.
“We didn’t come out with the energy we wanted to and the offense had a good couple of plays to start,” said Bignell, himself solid with two tackles for loss. “All it takes is one person to be out of their gaps for a big play to happen. We have to clean that up.
“It is frustrating because it seems like it happens more often with the defense than the offense and it sucks because in practice, we are always ready to play but it seems like when there are people around, we are not up to that standard.”
During the team periods of Thursday’s practice, Choate said the defense dominated. That’s been the case for much of the off-season, from spring practices through the first week of fall camp. The narrative changed during the scrimmage.
“The one thing I would have liked to see today is more edge and physicality on the defensive side,” Choate said. “I think those guys eased into things today. You ease into things, you are going to get hit in the mouth and that’s not going to be good for you.
“You can only play defense one way and that’s with your foot all the way down on the gas pedal and on the floor board.”
Saturday, the Bobcat quarterbacks consistently sliced the secondary. Although the pass rush looked much improved — Marks, redshirt freshman tackle Chase Benson, true freshman tackle Elu Leota, true freshman linebacker Tadan Gilman, true freshman nickel back Tyrel Thomas, redshirt freshman Balue Chapman and junior tackle Zach Wright all notched sacks — the relaying of information on the back end was suspect, Choate said.
“I thought we had some communication issues, which was discouraging considering some of the veteran safeties,” Choate said. “I was frustrated by that. We gave up some explosive plays in the passing game. When you have some of the rooks in there, that’s going to happen. But when you are rolling with Bryson and Khari (Garcia) and Brayden (Konkol), those guys have done this for awhile.”
The Bobcat offense could not find any rhythm in the passing game using the middle of the field last season. Saturday, from Kassis getting loose in the open field on a drag route to Patterson breaking off his defender with sharp routes out of the slot to the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Sullivan using his formidable physical advantages running seam routes to Herbert making two catches in the middle of the field, the Bobcat offense had a whole different look with new offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong directing the traffic.
“It’s about energy and that starts with me and Mac,” said McCabe, a second-team All-Big Sky selection and team captain as a junior last fall. “We have to bring more energy. The offense, they came out firing today. It’s a scrimmage situation, the bullets are flying, we have no excuses. We need to execute in these type of situations,”
The MSU secondary did make a few plays, including true freshman Jalen Cole’s near interception to which senior Bryce Alley, who also had a pass breakup, exclaimed, ‘Oh young one, you should be going to the bank right now!” from the sideline.
“Jalen should’ve cashed in on a pick,” McCabe said with a laugh. “They (Cole and Thomas) are warriors, I’m excited for their future. They might need to get in earlier than expected but I’m excited what those guys can do.”
The pass rush, particularly among the young players, served as positives for the defense. Marks, a Belgrade product thrown into the fire as a true freshman who is now up to 6-2, 250 pounds, rebounded from losing his gap to notch a sack and tackle for loss. Leota — a product of Trinity High in Euless Texas, the same high school that has gifted MSU five standout players this decade — showed tremendous strength and power at the point of attack, anchoring the middle of MSU’s reserve defensive line.
Chad Kanow, a 6-4, 200-pounder from Southern California recruited as a linebacker, turned the most heads on the No. 2 and No. 3 defenses from his new Buck end spot. He stripped MSU senior running back Nick LaSane (freshman safety Shawn Borgess recovered) for the defense’s lone takeaway. He also smeared freshman Tyrel Burgess for a loss to the eruption of the defenders on the east sideline.
“Chad has been a really good surprise for us,” Choate said. “He played inside linebacker in high school (in Temecula, California) and primarily blitzed all the time and was a really productive, good player. But we thought he’d be a natural off the edge because he was such a good blizter in high school. He’s showed the ability to pick the defense very quickly. He’s not exactly physically what we want in terms of the weight yet but he’s physically what we want in terms of his weight and twitch.”
Offensively, Troy Andersen continued to shine as well. Recruited as a linebacker, the former Dillon standout rushed for a scrimmage-high 70 yards on eight carries, including five punishing carries toward the end of Saturday’s action.
“Troy is a good player, will have a big role in our offense,” Mahoney said. “He’s a big, fast kid, hard worker, don’t say anything, put his head down, does what he needs to do.”’
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.
Montana State scrimmage August 12, 2017 statistics
RUSHING: Troy Andersen 8-70-0, Tyrel Burgess 8-35-0, R.J. Fitzgerald 7-23-0, Edward Vander 8-22-1, Logan Jones 2-34-0, Nick LaSane 3-7-0, Noah James 1-1-0, Kevin Kassis 1-5-0, Chris Murray 6- -16-0, Tucker Rovig 1- -1-0, Luke May 1-9-0, Callahan O’Reilly 1- -3-0.
PASSING: Chris Murray 10-13-0, 192, 2 TD; Brady McChesney 3-7-0, 25, 1; Tucker Rovig 7-11-0, 144, 1 TD; Luke May 1-2-0, 6, 0; Callahan O’Reilly 1-3-0, 4, 0.
RECEIVING: Kevin Kassis 4-55-0, Kapili Livingston-Lopez 4-19-0, Connor Sullivan 3-54-2, Keon Stephens 4-52-1, Mitchell Herbert 3-93-1, Willie Patterson 2-72-0, Jacob Byrne 1-6-0, Edward Vander 1-12-0.
SACKS: Chase Benson (2), Derek Marks, Elu Leota, Tadan Gilman, Tyrel Thomas, Balue Chapman, Tyrone Fa’anono, Zach Wright
OTHER TACKLES FOR LOSS: Chad Kanow (2), Derek Marks, Elu Leota, Khari Garcia, Mac Bignell, Derek Marks, Bryce Alley, Jackson McCleery
PASS BREAKUPS: Jalen Cole (2), Ben Folsom, Braelen Evans, Khari Garcia.
FORCED FUMBLES: Jackson McCleery, Chad Kanow.
Edward Vander 3-yard run (Luke Daly)
Gabe Peppenger 28 FG
Conner Sullivan 28 yards from Brady McChesney (Luke Daly)
Gabe Peppenger 40 FG
Keon Stephens 25 yards from Tucker Rovig (Luke Daly)
Connor Sullivan 13 yards from Chris Murray (Luke Daly)
Mitch Herbert 68 yards from Chris Murray