BOZEMAN, Montana — The FCS Playoffs is often a showcase of the top quarterback talent in the subdivision. When a team at the FCS level has an elite talent under center, the most important position in team sports can help lead squads on deep playoff runs.
In the first round of the FCS playoffs, Walter Payton finalist Kenji Bahar led Monmouth to its its first playoff win in school history over Holy Cross. Southeastern Louisiana senior Chason Virgil threw for 445 yards and three touchdowns to spark a rally from a 17-point halftime deficit for a 45-44 win over No. 8 Villanova, the second playoff win in SLU history.
The following week, Virgil and the Lions ran into a buzz saw spearheaded by Montana senior quarterback Dalton Sneed. The electric former UNLV transfer threw for 459 yards and five touchdowns to lead UM to a 73-28 victory over Southeastern Louisiana and into the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs.
Albany redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Undercuffler threw four touchdowns in the third quarter and tied and FCS playoff record six touchdowns overall to lead the Great Danes to their first-ever playoff win over Central Connecticut.
From Jerry Rice Award winner Trey Lance to Colonial Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year Ben DiNucci to Austin Peay red-hot dual-threat Javaughn Craig, most of the final eight teams left in the postseason and most of the 24-team playoff field reached the playoffs on the stretch of elite quarterback talent.
On Saturday in Bozeman, Montana State won for the fifth straight game. The Bobcats did it thanks in large part to the best game of quarterback Tucker Rovig’s career. And if you didn’t know the previous history, you would say that MSU is much like so many of its FCS peers.
Rovig outdueled Undercuffler, who finished his outstanding freshman season with an FCS-best 41 touchdown passes. Rovig looked like the big-armed quarterback Montana State head coach Jeff Choate has hoped he could become in the 47-21 win by the host Bobcats.
The 6-foot-5 sophomore from Boise completed 24-of-30 for 279 yards and three touchdowns. His completion total was the third-most in MSU playoff history and his yardage total was the fifth-most by a Bobcat in a playoff game.
“We gave him opportunities and he took advantage of them,” Choate said following the second playoff win of his career and the eighth FCS playoff win in MSU history. “This is the guy we see every day in practice and our coaching staff and our team has a tremendous amount of confidence in Tucker. When you play one of the 16 best teams in the country, you are going to need your best. Tucker gave us his best today.”
Montana State’s offensive line is so nasty, so big and so cohesive that the Bobcats have not needed Rovig to do much more than operate since he took over as the starter the fourth game of the season. In his first start of 2019, Rovig diced up an overmatched Norfolk State team, throwing for 221 yards and four touchdowns in a 56-21 victory.
After that win, Rovig struggled against Northern Arizona and Cal Poly but the Bobcats rode huge rushing efforts to victory. Rovig threw for a season-high 262 yards against Sac State but most of those yards came late as MSU scored with 1:41 left in a 34-21 loss.
Two weeks later, coming out of a bye, Rovig and the Bobcat offense hit rock bottom. Rovig completed 13 passes (his fourth-highest this season) but managed just 77 yards. The Bobcats had just 16 first downs, amassed just 316 yards of offense and scored just one touchdown in a 16-12 loss at North Dakota.
That loss capped what Choate has called “an October to forget” in recent weeks. The first two weeks of November brought resounding MSU victories. Rovig threw for 197 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-7 win over Southern Utah, but the touchdown he caught was more symbolic of the beatdown that saw the Cats build a 42-0 lead in the first half.
In a 45-14 win over Northern Colorado, the Bobcats rushed for 451 yards on just 46 carries. Rovig’s 77 yards passing, his touchdown pass to tight end Deryk Snell and the pick-six he threw were all inconsequential.
Heading into a road game at reigning Big Sky Conference champion UC Davis, Choate said he saw Rovig’s confidence lock in. And it showed. Rovig was efficient and effective in leading MSU to a 27-17 victory that helped set the table for a second straight playoff berth. Rovig completed 17-of-25 passes for 217 yards in the win.
“From that point, he’s operated really well,” Choate said.
“I have seen that out of him the last four or five weeks. I think the game is really starting to slow down for him. He sees things more clearly. He is making more decisive decisions. And he’s doing it much quicker. I think his accuracy continues to improve. I think his chemistry with the receivers continues to improve.”
And that operation came to a head as Rovig played a key roll in MSU piling up 483 yards of total offense against an Albany team dead set on not letting MSU rush for a gaudy total.
“Really proud of the way our guys adjusted throughout the course of the game,” Choate said. “There was no question that they were bound and determined to not let us run the ball for 400 yards like we did two weeks ago (382 yards in a 48-14 win over No. 3 Montana). I really thought they had a great scheme against our run game. We were forced to go to some things that maybe aren’t what we highlight in our offense on a week-to-week basis.”
“Tucker Rovig operated, I mean, he threw the ball very, very well,” Choate said. “He showed a lot of poise and confidence in his receivers whether that was Lance or Travis (Jonsen) or Kevin (Kassis) making plays down the field. That loosened things up.”
Undercuffler hit All-American wide receiver Juwan Green for a 58-yard touchdown on the third play of the game. The Bobcats proceeded to score 47 straight points. Jonsen, MSU’s versatile all-purpose threat, added to his 1,037 yards from scrimmage with a 45-yard touchdown run to tie the score.
Rovig executed a pair of touchdown drives, one that capitalized on a short field set up by a Coy Steel punt return and the second a 7-play, 85-yard march that put MSU up 23-7 early in the second quarter. He hit Kassis four times, including for a 44-yard bomb, on the final possession of the second quarter to set up a Tristan Bailey field goal.
To begin the second half, Rovig hit a 49-yard shot to Lance McCutcheon for a touchdown that pushed the lead to 33-7. On MSU’s very next possession, he hit McCutchon for a 42-yard touchdown to push the margin to 40-7. The two scoring receptions marked the first two of the season for McCutcheon, an athletic and enigmatic junior from Bozeman who caught just 11 passes this season before the playoff game.
“It’s pretty nice when some of the balls were not the best balls by me and it’s very nice when you can throw a 50/50 ball and guarantee it’s going to be caught or an incomplete pass,” Rovig said following a game that saw him move to 9-3 as MSU’s starting quarterback.
“Comfortable and confident. That’s helped me. That’s all thanks to the guys constantly believing in me as well as the coaches.”
Even if most of the nearly 13,000 fans at Bobcat Stadium were impressed with the way Rovig commanded the offense, Albany head coach Greg Gattuso was not as willing to give credit.
“It’s really easy to throw fades when you are up,” Gattuso said. “We lost our starting corner. I wasn’t surprised they took a few shots. When you are winning, when you have a lead, it’s just so easy to throw fades. The passing game was not the factor in this score to me.”
On Friday night, No. 5 Montana State takes on a surging Austin Peay team that has won its first two playoff games in program history the last two weeks. The Governors of the Ohio Valley Conference are seventh in he FCS in rushing defense, along 91 yards per game. That will create a strength versus strength matchup Friday as MSU is averaging 265 rushing yards per game.
The Bobcats will likely need Rovig to maintain his solid level of play.
“That’s what good teams do so we have to have enough diversity on offense to attack them,” Choate said. “On Sunday, we were talking about how we rushed for 203 yards (against Albany) and it didn’t feel like we did anything. It’s funny how we have become accustomed to these really prolific rushing days. But it was nice to be able to add those 280 yards passing. And Tucker deserves credit for that.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.