Montana State Spring Football

Running backs steal the show at Sonny Holland Spring Classic


BOZEMAN, Montana — During an off-season of change, one thing remains almost certain at Montana State: the Bobcats still have a high penchant for running the football prolifically.

In a scrimmage that lasted about 70 plays and just short of two hours, the MSU football team gave repetitions to a variety of young players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, during an overcast but pleasant afternoon at Bobcat Stadium.

The Blue team emerged from the Sonny Holland Spring Classic with a 21-10 win that doesn’t’ mean much, other than a few of MSU’s top ball carriers wore blue jerseys and scored touchdowns.

Isaiah Ifanse, one of the top rushers in school history already entering his junior year, rushed for 75 yards and a three-yard touchdown on the Blue’s first possession of the game. Elijah Elliott, a talented true freshman from Portland, got into scoring action with a seven-yard touchdown as part of a 256-yard rushing day for the Bobcats.

“I think we have a good stable of running backs and I think they bring a lot of different skill sets to the table,” MSU first-year head coach Brent Vigen said. “I think that was evident today. All five of those guys who will be in the mix (Ifanse, Elliott, redshirt freshmen Jaharie Martin and DeMareus Hosey, junior Lane Sumner), they were able to showcase themselves a little today and throughout the spring.”

Each of those tailbacks operated behind Montana State’s offensive line, a unit that features returning All-Big Sky Conference selections seniors Taylor Tuiasosopo and Lewis Kidd along with juniors Connor Wood and Zach Redd plus transfer center Cole Sain that enforced their will against a White team front that was seriously short-handed as most of MSU’s headlining players on the front seven did not participate.

Montana State running back Isaiah Ifanse (22) looks to create Saturday/by Brooks Nuanez

“You take a measured approach in the success of (the run game),” Vigen said.

“But that offensive line, we’ve said it from the beginning, is a group that has experience, a group that we need to be able to lean on.

“And the running game, that needs to be all weather, every day. If you can lean on a running game and that’s important to play consistent football.”

Players who did not participate Saturday included:

  • LB Troy Andersen
  • DT Chase Benson
  • DE Amandre Williams
  • LB Callahan O’Reilly
  • S Ty Okada
  • CB Level Price Jr.
  • CB Eric Zambrano
  • CB Tylor Bohannon
  • DE Kyle Finch
  • LB Tadan Gilman
  • DT Byron Rollins
  • S Rylan Ortt
  • DE Tyson Regimbal
  • CB Devin Davis
  • DT Trey Yates
  • QB Casey Bauman
  • OT T.J. Session
  • OL Jacob Kettles
  • WR Tanner Trafton
  • C Justus Perkins
  • RB Minaya Olivio
  • TE Jarrett Kessler
  • S Kendrick Bailey
  • LB Aidan Parks
  • LB Alex Johnson

Other players who were not identified as out (visually or by Vigen) but were not seen in action:

  • S Luke May
  • RB Joe Olson
  • DB Connor Ryan
  • RB Jaalen Rening
  • RB Shane Perry
  • DE Rylan Wilcox

Skyline Sports also confirmed the retirement or departure of senior tight end Jacob Hadley, junior linebacker Chad Kanow, safety Chacho Ulloa and defensive tackle John Clark. The latter two were graduate transfers, Ulloa from Arizona and Clark from Washington.

Despite all of those non-participants, several young Bobcats stood out. And the running backs led the way. Ifanse, who became the first player in MSU history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing as a freshman two years ago, finished the day with 114 yards on 14 explosive carries. Elliott finished with seven carries for 75 yards.

Montana State running back Lane Sumner (24)/by Brooks Nuanez

“Isaiah is a complete back who can run between the tackles and has the speed to get out on the edge,” Vigen said. “Elijah’s game is a little more on the perimeter. I think at his size, he can still get away with runs between the tackles. There are certainly different compliment of plays we can run with both and there’s some overlap. I think the pace is a little different. That change of pace can make it complicated for a defense at times.”

Redshirt freshman bruiser Jaharie Martin, who came to MSU as an inside linebacker from Lakeland, Florida, bulldozed his way to 30 yards on four carries on the first offensive possession of the game, leading to a 37-yard field goal by Blake Glessner to put the White team on the board early.

On the first offensive possession for the Blue, a shot play down field thrown by junior quarterback Matt McKay to senior Lance McCutcheon was overthrown. His second attempt on the next play was also high. Facing a third and 10, the Blue offense turned to Ifanse, who had a 13-yard first down to spark a 75-yard effort that included a three-yard touchdown on his team’s first offensive possession of the afternoon.

Junior Lane Sumner and redshirt freshman DeMareus Hosey also each showed flashes as MSU displayed that it still goes five deep in the backfield, something that was a trademark of Montana State’s playoff teams in 2018 and 2019.

“We will continue to work through all five guys and how they fit into the big picture,” Vigen said. “To have depth at that position, football is a game that you need some depth and running back is a position where it’s as important as any to have that next man up ability. And I think we have that.”

Elliott’s touchdown early in the fourth quarter (each frame was eight minutes long on Saturday) gave way to the White earning one more shot.

Tucker Rovig, MSU’s starting quarterback for a total of 13 games over the 2018 and 2019 season, shook off a third-quarter interception snared true freshman Miles Jackson, to lead a fast-paced drive. He threw a strike for a 42-yard gain inside the red-zone to Nate Stewart, a graduate transfer from Akron. Three plays later, Rovig scored a one-yard touchdown to cut the Blue advantage to 14-10 with 2:16 left in the action.

Montana State quarterback Blake Thelen (18) throws deep Saturday/by Brooks Nuanez

Vigen went with Blake Thelen, a walk-on redshirt freshman out of Great Falls who has shown great savvy and precise passing whenever he’s gotten a shot, to help the Blue team close out the action.

Thelen found Jayden Smith, a 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman who caught a touchdown against Southern Utah in 2019, for a 32-yard gain, then another first down catch to move the Blue into White territory.

“I think we have really good potential at the offensive skill positions but they are young and there is not a lot of experience, whether those guys came here in 2020 and haven’t been on the field at all or they came here in 2019 and redshirted,” Vigen said. “The game experience is limited but the talent is there. You have depth and that creates competition and with competition, you hope that pushes guys.”

Facing a third down and two yards to go, Thelen used a hard count that did not draw the defense. He then ran a play-action fake, rolled to his right and fired a dart to sophomore tight end Derryk Snell. The former Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year did the rest, rumbling 35 yards for a decisive touchdown.

“Blake is a guy we’ve found is a guy who can just get things done,” Vigen said. “He’s young yet, a redshirt freshman but it was good to see him have that success.

“He’s shown through the course of spring, while his reps have been limited, he has a chance to play here.”

Montana State’s quarterbacks completed 15 of their 31 passing attempts, including 5-of-9 from Thelen for 88 of MSU’s 236 passing yards. Rovig was 5-of-8 for 89 yards and an interception. McKay went 3-of-8 for 23 yards and did not complete a pass in the first half. Sophomore Casey Bauman did not play.

Montana State wide receiver Nate Stewart (10) catches a pass down field Saturday/by Brooks Nuanez

“I think everyone is getting use to (the offense), but we need to go through the summer here and have guys put in the time with seven-on-seven, etc.,” Vigen said. “The second time through things from an installation perspective, it will be feel better. It will be better recall. Then we will get to fall camp and it will be our third time through so even if it’s not second nature, it will be closer to that.

“We were a little off today. There were some details…we know what we were supposed to do but couldn’t get there.”

Despite trailing by 11 with less than a minute left, Vigen put freshman Tommy Mellott in at quarterback for the White. The former Montana Gatorade Player of the Year from Butte hit Tyrone Marshall for a highlight reel catch into Blue team territory. But the final possession ended as John Knight, a converted quarterback now playing safety and switching to the Blue team for the second half, picked off Mellott.

The top defensive highlights of the day came from Daniel Hardy, who sacked McKay in the first half, and Michael Jobman, a converted inside linebacker who’s now playing defensive end who had a pair of sacks for the Blue team. Jackson and Knight had the two interceptions on a day the Bobcat defense hung tough despite not having at least six players expected to start next fall.

“I’m really thankful to those defensive guys who got every play in the scrimmage and fought their tails off,” Vigen said.

“Hardy being disruptive, that’s been an every day affair for Danny. He backed up two pretty good players going back to 2019 backing up Troy and Amandre, on the outside, standing up. He was a lighter player, about 215 (listed as 230 now). He was a guy who caught my eye those early workouts. He’s a prototype defensive end with his hand down in part because there is no quit in him. He has a relentless motor to him and he’s learning how to play that position on the fly.”

Montana State cornerback Miles Jackson (31) intercepts a Tucker Rovig pass Saturday/by Brooks Nuanez

Vigen’s first spring is now in the books. The Bobcats will transition to time away from campus before reporting for summer strength and conditioning. Incoming players will join the returnees by late June.

The Vigen era will officially begin on September 4 in Laramie against the Wyoming Cowboys. Vigen spent the last seven years as Wyoming’s offensive coordinator.

“We get to the end of the spring, we have a good sense of where we are at as a team,” Vigen said. “And individual players will meet with their coaches this week and get some real good feedback of where they are at relative to the depth chart and what they need to do to get better this summer.

“We have three months now in front of us before we get going for fall camp. There’s a lot to be accomplished and a lot that needs to. I like the way this team is approaching their business and we need to keep that going.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

Sonny Holland Spring Classic statistics

  • RUSHING: Isaiah Ifanse 14-111-1, Jaharie Martin 7-37, Tucker Rovig 2-4-1, DeMareus Hosey 2-26, Matt McKay 2-3, Tommy Mellott 3- -1, Elijah Elliott 7-75-1, Lane Sumner 4-19, Garrett Coon 2-5, TEAM 2- -13. TOTAL 45-256-3
  • PASSING: Tucker Rovig 5-8-1, 89, 0; Matt McKay 3-8-0, 23, 0; Tommy Mellott 2-6-1, 36, 0; Blake Thelen 5-9-0, 88, 1. TOTAL 15-31-2, 236, 1
  • RECEIVING: Quincy Kent-Schneider 1-13, Nate Stewart 2-53, Tyrone Marshall 3-52, Treyton Pickering 1-7, Ryan Davis 1-7, Lane Sumner 1-8, Jaden Smith 3-47, Lance McCutcheon 2-15, Derryk Snell 1-34-1. TOTAL 15-236-1
Montana State quarterback Matt McKay (8) throws downfield Saturday/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State defensive end Daniel Hardy (44) sacks quarterback Matt McKay (8)/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State running back Jahari Martin (19) tackled by Bobcat defenders/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State tackle Lewis Kidd (76)/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State head coach Brent Vigen discusses a call with the white hat official/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State running back Isaiah Ifanse (22) plows through Bobcat defenders/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State cornerback Miles Jackson (31) celebrates an interception/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State quarterback Matt McKay (8)/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana State defenders Jeffrey Manning (5) and Daniel Hardy (44) celebrate a fumble recovery/by Brooks Nuanez

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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