Editor’s Note: Brooks Nuanez contributed the reporting for this story.
BOZEMAN — Of all the scenarios one could’ve imagined, Montana State got back on track in unpredictable fashion on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
A week after the MSU offense laid an egg in a 45-14 loss at No. 3 South Dakota State, question marks still swirled. Operating for the first time in 18 games without a true running quarterback, the Bobcats rushed for just 29 yards on 21 carries, the first time one of Jeff Choate’s squads did not surpass 100 yards on the ground in a game.
With Troy Andersen out of the quarterback mix because of a broken left hand suffered in MSU’s 26-23 win over Western Illinois, redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig made his first start in Brookings. The Bobcats managed just one first down in the first half and six overall, the latter the lowest total times moving the sticks since 1996.
The talk all week around the team was one of positively channeling the frustration and disappointment of a strange week that culminated in Choate having an emergency appendectomy upon returning from South Dakota Sunday morning.
Visiting Wagner found itself on the wrong end of Montana State’s offensive onslaught Saturday. Rovig evolved from skittish and timid in the first half against SDSU to adequate in the second half to a confident gunslinger against the Seahawks.
The former 3-star recruit from Boise looked poised and assertive in the pocket, using deceiving play-action fakes, a quick release and a variety of balls thrown on a rope during a career day.
In his second career start, Rovig transformed, looking like the player many believe is MSU’s quarterback of the future. Rovig looked like the quarterback of the now, completing 23-of-34 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns in MSU’s 47-24 victory in MSU’s first-ever matchup between the Seahawks of the Northeast Conference.
“Getting thrown into the fire last week I think definitely helped me in terms of getting more confidence and having more poise,” Rovig said. “That’s all do how to this offense ran today. We were very elusive, probably 50/50 running the ball and throwing the ball. Offensive line did a great job blocking and Isaiah had a great game running.
“The offensive line opens up everything, big holes for the run game, gives me enough time to drop back and throw it to an open receiver. They are the biggest part of the offense.”
As Rovig opened up the field with a newfound ability to throw the ball on time and on a dime, Montana State’s running game reemerged. True freshman running back Isaiah Ifanse, the Washington Gatorade Player of the Year a year ago at Bellevue High, ripped off a 73-yard touchdown run with eight minutes to play in the first half as he burst past 100 yards before the break.
Playing running back in a limited capacity in the second half despite sporting a thick cast on his left hand, Andersen took a backside sweep and juiced Wagner’s entire defense on the way to a 57-yard touchdown run that provided the exclamation to MSU’s offensive showcase. MSU finished the game with 246 yards on the ground.
“It was really nice going 3rd and 4 instead of 3rd and 10,” Rovig said. “The run game was huge opening up everything. That’s one of the biggest reasons why the offense was so successful.”
Saturday’s point total marked the most by the Bobcats since MSU’s 49-21 win to open Big Sky Conference play at North Dakota last September. MSU’s 556 of total offense marked the most total yards in 25 games under Choate and his staff and the third time in the last three seasons the Bobcats surpassed 500 yards of total offense. MSU totaled 515 yards in last season’s win over UND and 508 in a 41-38 loss at Sacramento State in 2016.
“I was really proud of our offensive personnel, top to bottom,” Choate said. “Tucker really did a great job of preparing this week. We knew Isaiah was a good hard runner and we had to feature him a little more and I thought we did a good job of that.
“Proud of our offensive staff and how they responded to the challenges we presented them this week,” continued Choate, who moved offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong from the sideline to the press box and did the offensive signal calling on the field. “I’m extremely proud of our offensive line. I don’t know how many yards we rushed for but I put a challenge to them: I wanted 200 this game and I know we did that. To do that kind of without Troy, I thought we did a good job.”
The balance of the Bobcats was startling. Rovig found his inside receivers like redshirt freshman Willie Patterson, his outside guys like junior Kevin Kassis (9 catches, 126 yards, two TDs) and senior tight end Connor Sullivan to open up the field.
That allowed MSU to average 5.6 yards per carry on 44 rushes. Ifanse finished with 23 carries for 146 yards plus the long touchdown. He totaled 218 yards from scrimmage thanks to four catches for 76 yards. Andersen totaled 64 on three carries plus his explosive score. And Tyler Natee, a 260-pound transfer from Indiana playing in his first game after missing the first two with a knee injury, scored a short touchdown to give MSU a 14-7 lead.
“Tucker, confidence. He took all the reps this week,” Choate siad. “We had some Travis (Jonsen) stuff going into the South Dakota State game. We just settled in and said, ‘this is what we are going to do.’ But what we are really going to do is take some pressure off of him by being committed to running the football. I think that was a huge difference in the game. We were able to hit some play-action shots off of an efficient run game and got some easy throws for Tucker early.”
Natee’s touchdown put MSU back in control in what amounted to an offensively dominated first half filled with highlights.
Wagner’s Denzel Knight took the opening kickoff of the game 98 yards for a touchdown. Rovig fumbled in the red-zone, giving the Seahawks the ball with all the momentum. But the Bobcat defense stiffened, forcing a punt that led to a 10-play, 79-yard drive in which Rovig found his rhythm.
“I wanted to brush that out of my memory, think next drive, next play,” Rovig said. “Let’s go put some points on the board.”
Despite MSU’s offensive onslaught, Ryan Fulse would not quit trying to fight his team back into the game. The senior running back that finished fourth in the FCS in rushing yards last season (1,306) ripped off a an 18-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter to tie the game at 14.
Tristan Bailey’s fifth straight field goal following a 4-for-4 opener and Ifanse’s long touchdown run gave MSU breathing room, 23-14. But Fulse scored a 66-yard touchdown with 7:21 left in the first half to cut the lead to two.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder who Choate called “a legitimate All-American candidate” in the week leading up to the game, finished with 181 yards on 25 carries. He rushed for 13 yards in the fourth quarter and 39 yards after halftime after posting a 142-yard first half.
“That Fulse kid is a player,” Choate said. “He was faster than I thought he was. When he got in space, that guy is a next-level talent in my opinion. He was a problem for us clearly. We simplified some things in the second half, played a lot more base calls, defense tightened up and we only gave up three points after halftime so that’s a good effort against an FCS opponent.”
Wagner had its chances and went blow for blow with MSU in the first half before the Bobcat defense locked in and the offense kept rolling. Bryce Sterk and Tyrone Fa’anono each had second half sacks. Wagner fell victim to 12 penalties that resulted in 86 yards, including a holding penalty that negated a 29-yard touchdown catch on an inside screen pass to Fulse.
“You can’t start faster than that,” Wagner head coach Jason Houghtaling said. “That was good, we executed well. Denzel showed his speed and we blocked it up.
“You can’t false start and jump offsides and all that. The penalties were huge. Whenever you are starting 1st and 15 instead of first and 10 against a team like that, you aren’t putting yourself in a good position to be successful. And I thought their offensive line did a nice job controlling the game.”
Rovig hit Kassis for a 10-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left before halftime to cap a nine-play, 80-yard drive. About five minutes into the second half, MSU’s defense forced a punt that Kassis returned 39 yards into Wagner territory. ON the next play, Rovig fired a perfectly thrown 29-yard strike while getting hit hard, finding Kassis in stride for to push the margin to 37-21.
The teams traded field goals in the third quarter before Andersen’s long touchdown run.
Montana State enters Big Sky Conference play with a 2-1 record.
“We are 0-0 in Big Sky play, we are playing for a lot more now and our urgency needs to increase,” Choate said.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.