Big Sky Conference

Quick start sparks Bobcats to 45-28 runaway past Cal Poly

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It may have been just Montana State’s third game of the season, but the Bobcats played like a team facing elimination on Saturday afternoon. The result was an offensive display by an explosive team hoping to live up to the lofty expectations heaped upon them all off-season. Fresh off a 55-50 loss at No. 11 Eastern Washington, the No. 15 Bobcats knew solid performance would be crucial on a beautiful homecoming Saturday in front of 19,707 at Bobcat Stadium. The Cal Poly Mustangs were in town, touting a triple option attack that had powered its way to more than 300 rushing yards against stout defenses like Montana, Arizona State and Northern Iowa. Montana State knew if it could get to an early lead, the Bobcats would have a chance at redemption, both for last week’s lackluster defensive showing and for last season’s 35-27 loss at Cal Poly, a game MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop said cost MSU the Big Sky Conference title trophy.

Rob Ash post game press conference

Rob Ash post game press conference

Prukop and the Bobcats wasted no time burying the Mustangs. Montana State scored 21 points in the game’s first 12 minutes and 28 in the first 15. Prukop threw for 399 yards and three touchdowns, Chad Newell rushed for 111 yards and three more scores and Montana State won in a route, notching its first Big Sky win by soundly defeating Cal Poly 45-28 on Saturday afternoon. “In the locker room, I saw a group of guys that are really confident now that we can have the season we all hoped we can have,” Ash said. “I think this was a huge confidence builder for us. We also know that this last week was very special. Our backs were against to the wall. This was a must-win situation against Cal Poly for a number of reasons. We practiced with an urgency and an intensity that we have to replicate the rest of the year.” The Bobcats totaled 602 yards of offense on 70 plays. Montana State rushed for 203 yards despite Prukop totaling just 36 a week after rushing for 196. Instead, Prukop stayed in the pocket and diced the Mustangs. A week after throwing for 353 yards and four touchdowns, Prukop completed 19 of 26 for 399 yards and three touchdowns. He totaled an efficiency rating of 240.1. “I think they did some good stuff but we did some REALLY bad stuff,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said following his team’s third straight loss after a season-opening 20-19 win in Missoula earlier this month. “The trick stuff they did, the deception stuff they did worked. That’s bad eyes. That’s not good. It shouldn’t happen but it did. And then you have to play a team like that down 21-0? That’s going to be a tough team to do for any team, I don’t care who you are. “The only way right now that you are going to beat that team, and Eastern Washington found out, is to out-score them.”

Dakota Prukop running the offense

MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop running the offense

Montana State wanted to build an early lead and let Cal Poly bleed itself out. The Mustangs’ triple-option offense is predicated on ball control and clock control. Last week, Cal Poly fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter to UNI. The Mustangs couldn’t rally. So when Montana State won the coin toss, the Bobcats took the ball. Prukop completed passes to Mitch Griebel and Mitch Herbert while Prukop, Newell, Gunnar Brekke and Jayshawn Gates carried the ball. In 11 plays, Montana State had a 7-0 lead. Cal Poly started its first drive with a typical first down sequence: a Kori Garcia run for two, a Chris Brown run for two more and a Joe Protheroe hammer that gained seven yards and moved the sticks. But three plays later, the Bobcat defense was off the field. Cal Poly put MSU into a fourth down situation on the ensuing drive, but senior punter Trevor Bolton’s 12-yard gain on a fake netted a first down. On the next play, Prukop handed off to Griebel on a jet sweep out of the slot. Griebel, a former all-state quarterback who played under center for a season at the Air Force Academy, threw the ball back to Prukop, who found a streaking Beau Sandland for a 51-yard gain. Newell scored from four yards out on the next play. The lead was 14-0 with 5:25 left in the first quarter. After six Cal Poly offensive plays, the Mustangs again punted. On the very next play, Prukop ran a zone-read fake to Newell before finding a streaking Gates in stride. The speedy sophomore had no Cal Poly defender within 30 yards of him as he cruised to an 88-yard touchdown.

MSU offense celebrates Jayshawn Gate's 88-yard touchdown

MSU offense celebrates Jayshawn Gate’s 88-yard touchdown

“That’s our bread and butter deep shot,” Prukop said. “Jayshawn is a pretty fast dude. If you can get that safety to trigger one or two steps, there’s no chance. “A lot of teams are going to try to roll down that backside safety to try to take away the zone read. They trigger hard, their safeties do and Coach (Tim) Cramsey did an awesome job with his game plan. t felt easy.” Montana State had a 21-0 lead with 14:50 left in the first quarter. “That’s how you want to start,” Prukop said with a laugh. “Defense was doing great. We got the ball back. We were taking the clock down and when we needed a shot, we’d go score. We really could kind of do anything we wanted.” Cal Poly responded to the 21-0 hole thanks to a 26-yard run by Garcia and a 36-yard score by Protheroe. The Bobcats again responded. After a first-down throw to Sandland, the Bobcata again ran  a zone-read play-action fake. Prukop again made the CP safeties trigger against the fake. He then fired a rope to Sandland on a deep post route for a 63-yard touchdown. “They ran an unbalanced formation, tackle as a tight end who is ineligible receiving on the backside,” Walsh said. “We practiced against it all week long. They threw it for a touchdown. That’s poor eyes and poor concentration. Those were the two or three touchdowns that we couldn’t just give them but we gave it to them.”

Cal Poly running back Cal Poly's Kori Garica is tackled for loss by MSU's Mac Bignell

Cal Poly running back Kori Garica is tackled for loss by MSU linebacker Mac Bignell

Cal Poly’s Kori Garcia scored with 23 seconds to play in the first half to cut the Montana State lead to 31-21. Cal Poly received the ball out of the half-time locker room but Montana State notched yet another stop. The Bobcats responded with a 72-yard drive that featured 14 and 15-yard runs by Newell and a 20-yard gain on a crossing route from Prukop to Sandland made possible by Brandon Brown’s great block. Two plays later, Prukop hit Sandland for a 13-yard touchdown. Sandland, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound transfer from Miami who came to MSU last fall but sat out in anticipation for this season. On Saturday, he had his breakout day as a Bobcat. Sandland finished with five catches for 156 yards. “A lot of those were uncontested, pretty easy,” Sandland said. “In the locker room, I gave credit to the offensive line for blocking, Dakota for giving me the ball and for Cramsey for drawing up those plays and making that possible. I just had to catch the ball and run it in. Most of them were uncontested.” Sandland’s second score put MSU up 38-21. Newell’s third score, a 13-yard off-tackle run finished with a stiff arm, put MSU up 45-21. The rest of the afternoon was basically a pleasantry. Cal Poly managed 356 yards rushing and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Protheroe piled up 156 yards on 27 carries.  Garcia rushed for 106 yards, mostly in the first half, including the touchdown before halftime.

MSU defense ft. Marcus Tappan, Taylor Sheridan, & Tucker Yates stop CP's Joe Protheroe on the dive

MSU defense ft. Marcus Tappan, Taylor Sheridan, & Tucker Yates stop Cal Poly fullback Joe Protheroe

But the Montana State defense came up a slew of crucial stops. The Bobcats forced three first-quarter punts and earned two fourth-down stops in the second half to get the ball back into the offense’s hands. The Bobcats employed a different lineup on Saturday, playing senior tackle Taylor Sheridan at end, playing 6-foot-1, 255-pound sophomore Devin Jeffries at Bandit ahead of 215-pound Zach Hutchins, starting 6-foot, 305-pound redshirt freshman Tucker Yates at nose tackle and rotating heavily at ever position aside from Sheridan and senior cornerback Bryson Keeton’s. “We had one play call this entire game and that was line up, hit the guy in front of you and play as hard as you can,” said Sheridan, MSU’s defensive captain who finished with 10 tackles. MSU sophomore Khari Garcia led the way with 12 tackles, including nine solos. The secondary’s ability to take on blocks and tackle the pitch man helped limit Garcia after halftime. Sophomore linebacker Mac Bignell’s improved play against perimeter blocking was also a key as the Drummond native finished with 10 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He also broke up two passes. Redshirt freshman middle linebacker Grant Collins had nine tackles and Yates totaled seven. All told, MSU played eight defensive linemen, four inside linebackers, three safeties and four corners. “We simplified it for them this week and that’s the key so they don’t have to have a lot to think about,” Ash said. “That’s going to build depth and help us down the road.”

MSU running back Chad Newell hurdles Cal Poly defensive back Kaulin Blair

MSU running back Chad Newell hurdles Cal Poly defensive back Kaulin Blair

Montana State’s season started with uncertainly. The off-season saw the hype machine go into overdrive for the Bobcats. The offense returned largely in tact. Players like Herbert and Gates were a year older, Newell had emerged as a star and the attack would add Sandland. But MSU lacked pizzazz in a 45-14 win over Fort Lewis, as a slow start and a pile of penalties highlighted the day. Last week, it looked uncertain MSU would be able to tackle anyone going forward. On Saturday, the Bobcats made a statement. Montana State did whatever it wanted during the first three quarters of play, burying a team billed as the one of the fastest and most aggressive in the Big Sky. The defense showed marked improvement and the off-season emphasis on rotation was put into use as the unit looked fast, physical and deep. The result was a complete win that revitalized the Bobcats’ confidence and helped MSU move into first place in the Big Sky, at least for a week. “I just told the team, I thought this was one of the best total team efforts that we’ve had since I’ve been here as a coach,” Ash said. “We played a lot of guys on both sides of the ball, rotated a lot of people in, played a lot of guys on special teams. Every single guy was locked into this game from the very beginning on the sidelines, executed well. It’s really a satisfying for our team.” 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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