Big Sky Conference

SUNDAY NOTEBOOK: Quick start, defensive lineup charge spark Bobcats past Mustangs


As Chad Newell, Dakota Prukop, Mitch Griebel and Taylor Sheridan walked hand in hand to the center of Bobcat Stadium, the Montana State captains knew one thing: if the Bobcats had a choice, they wanted the ball.

The Bobcats knew that a quick start against Cal Poly would put the Mustangs in catch up mode, something not conducive for their triple option offense. Montana State won the toss and promptly scored on an 11-play drive that involved a variety of offensive weapons.

MSU running back Chad Newell side-steps a Cal Poly defender in the hole

MSU running back Chad Newell side-steps a Cal Poly defender in the hole

Montana State’s defense earned the stop it needed, the Bobcats converted a fake punt followed immediately by a trick play and homecoming Saturday in Bozeman was off and running for the hosts. Beau Sandland’s 51-yard reception on a pass back from Griebel to Prukop, then to Sandland set up Newell’s second of three rushing touchdowns. It also gave Montana State a 14-0 lead. One more defensive stop and an 88-yard touchdown from Prukop to a streaking Jayshawn Gates and the Bobcats never looked back, cruising to a 45-28 win to begin Big Sky Conference play 1-0.

“It was the ideal game plan, what we wanted to try to do,” MSU ninth-year head coach Rob Ash said following his 47th Big Sky win and 67th win at the helm for the Bobcats. “Quite honestly, we were going to take the ball even though we usually defer at home. We knew the stakes were high that we needed to get a touchdown on that first drive. I don’t think in our wildest imagination did we think we would hit so many deep balls early because they are usually a very good football team at stopping deep passes. That was the recipe we needed.”

Following Montana State’s opening march, the Cal Poly defense responded, seemingly forcing a three-and-out on MSU’s second possession. But a fake punt call to senior punter Trevor Bolton resulted in a 12-yard gain. On the very next play, Ash stayed aggressive, allowing third-year offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey to run one of his “element” plays, something the Bobcats work on often in practice, Prukop said following the game.

“That was not scripted between Cramsey and me,” Ash said. “I called the fake punt and he went right ahead with the next call. It was a good piggyback, I thought. One thing we are doing this year with our offense is they stay awake on the sidelines every time it’s fourth down are we are punting or whatever. You never know if we are going to fake it or not but if we do, we want to go finish the drive.”

Beau Sandland and John Weidenaar celebrate a 13-yard touchdown

Beau Sandland and John Weidenaar celebrate a 13-yard touchdown

“A lot of times when we have a big momentum play, we try to take a shot right away to take the momentum out of their sails completely,” added Sandland, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound former Miami transfer who exploded for five catches for 156 yards and touchdowns of 63 and 13 yards. “When I heard that play call, we’ve ran it so many times in practice, we set it up and I just worried about my release and when I got out of it, I hit the top end and it was there.”

Ash said the first deliberate drive had an obviously goal of scoring but also employed many horizontal aspects of the offense to see how the safeties were rotating. After the first possession, the Bobcats knew the safeties were peaking in the backfield and “triggering” when MSU ran zone-read option plays.

Sure enough, Sandland’s 63-yard touchdown, Gates’ 88-yarder and Sandland’s second touchdown were set up by play-action off of zone-read fakes. Cal Poly held Prukop to 36 yards rushing a week after he set an MSU quarterback record with 196 but he diced the Mustangs with 399 yards passing and three touchdowns.

“That was just straight blown coverage,” Cal Poly seventh-year head coach Tim Walsh said. “There were a couple of things they did — they run a trick play, all right good, hat’s off to them. But it was the stuff against the base stuff that shouldn’t result in 70-yard touchdowns. I knew if we gave up 70-yard touchdowns today, we would be digging ourselves a huge hole and we did. That’s execution stuff. I can throw it to a guy who is that wide open.”

“Some of it was just lack of communication. They ran the ball well too (204 yards rushing, including 118 for Newell) and that makes the play-action even that much more effective. I think the only thing we did today was Dakota Prukop didn’t run for a ton of yards. He was still pretty elusive and he was extremely accurate, especially early in the game, throwing the ball.”

MSU defense ft. Grant Collins, Fletcher Collins & Taylor Sheridan stuff Cal Poly running back Joe Protheroe

MSU defense ft. Grant Collins, Fletcher Collins & Taylor Sheridan stuff Cal Poly running back Joe Protheroe

A week ago, Montana State’s defense offered little resistance against the aerial attack of the Eastern Washington Eagles. Montana State allowed 16 plays of more than 29 yards as EWU rolled up 667 yards and 55 points despite having the ball less than 22 minutes and running just 57 plays. None of EWU’s eight scoring drives lasted longer than five plays. Tackling was the main culprit in the 55-50 loss.

On Saturday, behind an improved effort from several young players and a tactful lineup switch that worked like MSU hoped it would, the Bobcat defense made several crucial stops. Montana State forced three straight punts to begin the game in building the big lead. The Bobcats also forced a three-and-out right after halftime to halt any Cal Poly momentum after the Mustangs cut MSU’s lead to 31-21 with 23 seconds left in the first half.

Sophomore safety Khari Garcia led the charge with 12 tackles, including nine solos. His ability to adjust and make plays against Cal Poly’s pitch helped limit Kori Garcia after halftime. Redshirt freshman inside linebacker Grant Collins played his best game, notching nine tackles, a tackle for loss and tackling Garcia on a key fourth down in the third quarter that helped MSU extend its lead.

Sheridan, a senior defensive tackle, shifted out to end and finished with 10 tackles. Devin Jefferies, a 6-foot-1, 255-pound sophomore from Kalispell, made his first start in place of junior Zach Hutchins, a 215-pound hybrid that didn’t find much of a role against the triple option. Sheridan’s shift made room for redshirt freshman Tucker Yates at nose guard, making his first start as well. He primarily played next to seniors Connor Thomas and Nate Bignell, the latter of whom made a key fourth down tackle of Cal Poly fullback Joe Protheroe to give MSU the ball back up 38-21 in the third quarter.

“We just needed big dudes, you listen to them all week, they pride themselves on how physical they are and can be and we put it to the test,” Sheridan said.

Devin Jefferies and Tucker Yates each with their first start as Bobcats

Devin Jefferies and Tucker Yates each with their first start as Bobcats

The defensive lineup change was all about stopping Protheroe, Ash said. The sophomore is a 6-foot-1, 227-pound beast who rushed for 112 yards on Montana and 135 yards on Arizona State. On Saturday, he rushed for 156 yards on 27 bruising carries, including a 36-yard first quarter touchdown. But Montana State kept the triple option in check with a simplified system and much-improved tackling.

“Games like this, it’s heavily based on us up front and if we get rocked, we are in trouble,” Sheridan said. “We try to bring it as hard and as much as possible. Especially when you go on a lead, it is easy to sit back but especially today, these guys didn’t want them to come back. We didn’t want to give them any hope in the end. We wanted to secure the win.

“That’s for these guys because the offense does so much and they put us in great situation,” Sheridan continued, patting Prukop on the back while he praised the offense. “You want to look at last week man, these guys went into a dog fight with (Eastern Washington). It’s almost like we want to do it for them so there’s less points on the board so they can do the things they want to do.”

Yates, a 6-foot, 305-pounder from Colstrip notched seven tackles and was a rock in the middle of MSU’s defensive front. He kept blockers off the linbackers, in turn helping Collins, Fletcher Collins, Marcus Tappan and Blake Braun all have standout days.

MSU defense celebrates Mac Bignell TFL

MSU defense celebrates Mac Bignell TFL

“He doesn’t move,” Sheridan said. “He can’t be moved and that’s huge, especially because No. 5 (Protheroe) for them, man, he’s unreal. He runs hard and it’s fun for us to see that because we love that challenge. If someone is going to run that hard up the middle, you have to have a big dude who can hold it down. Tucker and Connor (Thomas) both did that great.”

Following the win, Ash called Saturday’s game a paramount contest in which his Bobcats played “like our backs were against the wall.” Montana State moved to 2-1, but Ash said the victory reinvigorated the confidence of a squad picked by the league’s coaches to win the conference title.

Last season, Cal Poly defeated Montana State 35-27 in San Luis Obispo, handing the Bobcats their first league loss. On Tuesday, Prukop said he felt that loss “cost us the (Big Sky) trophy.” Following Saturday’s win, he couldn’t help but smile.

“It feels good. You don’t like to use the word revenge. But that felt good,” Prukop said.

MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop evades the pocket

MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop evades the pocket

On the opposite sideline, Cal Poly suddenly finds itself reeling. The Mustangs pulled off a 20-19 upset in Missoula over Montana to open their season, a win accentuated by the fact that Montana posted a 38-35 win over four-time defending national champion North Dakota State the week before.

Since then, Cal Poly has had a tough time scoring despite the triple option’s ability to grind out yards and punish opposing defenses. Cal Poly had Arizona State on the ropes, tied 21-21 with eight minutes to play. Big plays helped the Sun Devils escape with a 35-21 win. Last week, Cal Poly fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter against Northern Iowa and couldn’t rally in a 34-20 loss.

Following Saturday, Cal Poly is now staring three straight losses in the face. For a second straight year, the Mustangs are 1-3. The schedule does not offer much relief. A reeling Idaho State team — the Bengals fell 80-8 on Saturday at UNLV — comes to SLO next weekend before CP heads to Cheney to face Eastern Washington.

“I don’t think we can talk about playoffs,” Walsh said. “We have to figure out how to win our game next week. If we win a game next week, we can start talking about what happens the following week. I don’t think we are in any position right now to talk about the playoffs. I don’t think we are bad. I just think we are playing good football teams and they are playing way better than we are playing.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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