As we usher in what some are predicting is the second coming of the roaring 20s, Skyline Sports is celebrating the end of the second decade of the 21st century with All-Decade teams for the Montana State and Montana football programs.
Skyline Sports senior writer Colter Nuanez first began covering Montana State football in 2010 at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Over the last 10 years, MSU has claimed three Big Sky Conference championships and qualified for the FCS playoffs six times. Montana State also has six wins this decade over rival Montana, including the last four in a row.
Players considered for these lists needed to only fit one rule: each athlete must have played two seasons this decade. Because of this, players like offensive tackle Mike Person and safety Mike Rider, the captains of MSU’s 2010 Big Sky title team, were not up for selection. We will be putting together an all-decade Bobcats team for the first 10 years of the 21st century soon as well.
MSU won 78 games this decade, advancing to the postseason in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014 and each of the last two seasons. This most recent year marked the first time MSU advanced to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs since 1984. Here are the players most influential in a decade of success for the Bobcats.
Montana State all-decade team
Quarterback — DeNarius McGhee
Between 2010 and 2013, nobody won more games (37) than McGhee in the history of Montana State quarterbacks. Despite an injury-riddled senior year that ultimately ended with MSU’s three-year playoff streak ending, McGhee still became the 14th player in college football history to throw for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 in his career.
McGhee was the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year in 2010 and 2012, helping MSU earn three straight Big Sky titles for the first time in program history. He remains MSU’s career record holder with 11,203 passing yards, 95 total touchdowns and 79 passing TDs.
Running back — Cody Kirk
The former walk-on from Griz Country (he grew up in Frenchtown) went from no-name to star with his breakout sophomore season in 2011. That year, he rushed for 1,351 yards and 14 touchdowns to help MSU to its second straight Big Sky title.
The tough, hard-charging runner struggled to find full health as a junior and a senior but never stopped producing. He rushed for nearly 3,500 yards, the second-most in program history. And his 47 touchdowns are far and away the most in the history of the program.
Fullback — Tray Robinson
Montana State has rarely operated with a fullback this decade and when Robinson was in the game, he was likely getting the ball. But he also proved to be a valuable asset in pass protection, on special teams and most of all as a spiritual and emotional leader.
The former transfer from Nebraska earned Big Sky Newcomer of the Year in 2011 and was a team captain in 2012. He rushed for close to 900 yards and scored nine touchdowns but his contributions go far beyond statistics. His unselfish attitude and mature persona were key on MSU’s 2011 and 2012 league title teams.
Wide receiver— Elvis Akpla
The freakishly athletic, freakishly smart former Oregon transfer made a name for himself first as a track athlete who came to Montana State to finally focus on football. He showed flashes of his potential by catching 43 passes for 682 yards and four touchdowns in 2010.
But the pre-med major blossomed into one of the most explosive receivers in the country as a senior in 2011. That season, he was McGhee’s go-to target, hauling in 63 passes for 1,145 yards and 11 touchdowns. That yardage total was just four yards short of the most ever by a Bobcat, held by Joe Bignell since 1984. The receiving touchdown total is also the second-best in a single season behind Sam McCullum’s 12 in 1972
Akpla’s 2,207 receiving yards rank second in program history and his 18 career touchdown catches are third.
Wide receiver – Tanner Bleskin
The former quarterback and, like Akpla, former pre-med major made the most of his cerebral abilities, dicing defenses with his savvy route running and ability to find open space.
The four-year starter was a four-time All-Big Sky selection, including second-team honors as a junior and senior, ended his career with 193 catches for 2,816 yards, both the best totals in Montana State history. He also was a multiple-time Academic All-American who caught 13 touchdown passes in his impressive career.
Wide receiver — Mitch Herbert
In continuing a trend, Herbert was a four-year starter and a pre-med major who basically never missed a game or a class during his four years in Bozeman.
He finished his career with 137 catches for 1,874 yards and 20 touchdowns (second-most in program history). But more than the sum of his totals, Herbert will be remembered for his ability to come up with clutch catches in the red-zone in big moments, like his touchdown catch to beat Sac State as a freshman in 2014 and his lead-extending touchdown against Idaho State later that year.
Herbert’s best season came during his sophomore year in 2015. He caught 42 passes for 562 yards and eight touchdowns for an offense that lit up scoreboards. But MSU’s defense struggled that year, leading to Rob Ash’s dismissal and the hiring of Jeff Choate. Herbert caught just 67 passes for 970 yards and eight touchdowns his last two years combined as MSU went heavy on its ground game. But the captain never waivered in his dedication to his team, which lands him on this team.
Wide receiver — Kevin Kassis
Until last month, Kassis would’ve likely been an honorable mention selection on this list. But his prevalence and knack for mind-bending catches of the final six weeks of his senior year made us carve out a fourth wide receiver spot for the two-time Bobcat captain.
Whether it was his shoestring touchdown catch against Austin Peay in the playoffs or his diving catch on the sideline in a 48-14 rout of the Grizzlies or his unreal touchdown snag against UC Davis, Kassis made Tucker Rovig look damn good during the stretch run of the 2019 season.
Kassis caught just 30 passes his first two years as MSU struggled mightily to throw the ball. Last season, his first of two as a Bobcat captain, he hauled in 55 catches for 663 yard and three touchdowns. This season, he had one of the better years in program history.
His 67 catches are tied for the fourth-most in a season at MSU. His six touchdowns give him 11 for his career, moving him into MSU’s career Top 10. His 871 yards are just outside the top 10 single-season totals. And his career numbers all took a big jump. His 152 receptions are fourth in school history and so are his 1,956 yards.
Tight end — Tiai Salanoa
For the first half of the decade, Montana State had an All-Big Sky tight end every season, including two years in a row with Salanoa holding down the position. True, Beau Sandland because just the second MSU tight end to earn All-American honors in 2015 but Salanoa’s consistency and production over his three years as a starter gives him the nod.
He caught 43 passes combined in 2013 and 2014. But his steady demeanor, natural leadership and devastating ability as a blocker proved to be his most important contributions to the Bobcats.
Offensive tackle – John Weidenaar
When Weidenaar was a tall, skinny sprinter at Manhattan High about 25 mintues from Bozeman, former Montana State offensive line coach Jason McEndoo projected that he would someday become a star.
McEndoo was right. Weidenaar dedicated himself to putting on the weight necessary to compete on the offensive line, then navigated a trial by fire. He was thrown to the wolves as a redshirt freshman left tackle in 2012, tasked with protecting McGhee’s blindside.
By the time he graduated in 2015, Weidenaar was the program’s all-time leader in consecutive starts with 49, breaking Brent Schwaggert’s MSu record. He was a two-time All-Big Sky honoree, including a first-team selection as a senior, helping him earn All-American honors along the way.
Offensive tackle – Mitch Brott
Ash told Brott that he thought Brott was the best offensive lineman in the state of Montana when Brott was a junior at Billings West. Then Ash’s staff offered Brott a partial scholarship.
That motivated the menacing offensive lineman for the rest of his record-setting career. Brott broke into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman at right tackle in 2016. When Dylan Mahoney went down with an injury, Brott played half the season at left tackle before moving back to the power side.
In 2017, he played right tackle and the last two years, he’s been the stalwart on Montana State’s constantly developing and improving offensive line. The team captain made his 50th consecutive start in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs against North Dakota State, breaking Weidenaar’s record and solidifying himself as one of the great offensive linemen in Bobcat history.
Offensive guard– Alex Terrien
Terrien was never the biggest offensive lineman but he was usually one of the smartest. He honestly could’ve been selected at either guard position, at center or at right tackle because he moved around that much during his standout career.
He started all 11 games at center in 2009 and rotated among the interior positions in 2010. As a senior in 2011, he was slated to start at right guard. He ended up earning All-American honors at offensive tackle while also serving as a team captain.
Offensive guard – J.P. Flynn
Flynn is arguably the most physically dominating offensive lineman to play for the Bobcats this decade. He showed his potential right away upon his arrival on campus from Bettendorf, Iowa.
Another McEndoo recruit, Flynn developed quickly, earning a spot in the starting lineup and third-team All-Big Sky honors as a freshman in 2013. In 2014, he was a first-team all-league selection and in 2015, again a third-team pick.
He blew out his patella tendon in the 2015 Cat-Griz game but somehow made it all the way back for his senior year. He was a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selection and an All-American. He played for the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 and 2018 before a patella tendon rupture to his other knee ended his career.
Center – Shaun Sampson
If you believe the saying “never judge a book by its cover”, Sampson might be the greatest example of the decade for the Bobcats.
The 6-foot, 250-pounder came to MSU as a walk-on who weighed less than 200 pounds. But he used his intellect — he was an engineering major with excellent grades — and his ability to leverage angles to forge one of the most impressive careers of the last 10 years.
The former Helena Capital standout went out with a bang, earning first-team All-Big Sky honors at center as a senior for the 2012 Bobcats, helping MSU to a historic third straight Big Sky title.
Kicker – Jason Cunningham
Nobody has kicked the ball for more points in Bobcat history than Cunningham, not even NFL Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud, arguably the most successful Bobcat alum of them all.
Cunningham became the first Bobcat kicker ever to surpass 100 points when he scored 102 thanks to hitting 20 field goals during the 2010 season, at the time the single-season record. The following year, he broke both marks, hitting 22 field goals and scoring 113 points.
The two-time All-American finished his career with more field goals of over 50 yards (6), more field goals of over 40 yards (14), more total field goals (69) and more points (357) than any player in Bobcat football history.
Kick returner – Shawn Johnson
The electrifying, versatile player was in consideration as a running back as well after rushing for nearly 1,500 yards between 2011 and 2014. But it’s his 4,453 all-purpose yards, the most in school history and mainly compiled as a kick and punt returner, that land him on this list.
Johnson’s skills were on full display in MSU’s 2014 game against Eastern Washington, an afternoon that saw Johnson set the school record with 374 all-purpose yards. He finished that season with four 100-yard rushing days. But he had three kick returns for touchdowns of 100 yards in his career, including two in 2013.
Johnson’s 742 punt return yards rank third in school history while his 1,846 kickoff return yards are the second-most ever, just two yards behind Everett Gilbert. Johnson also returned two punts for touchdowns in his career.
All-purpose — Troy Andersen — Andersen’s exploits have become almost mythical. And his career isn’t even over.
As a rookie, he earned Big Sky Freshman of the Year by playing both ways, rushing for more than 500 yards and scoring six touchdowns while also playing outside linebacker. As a sophomore, he stepped in at quarterback when Chris Murray was ruled out because of academic issues. All the Dillon product did was set the Big Sky on fire.
In 2018, Andersen rushed for 1,412 yards, the best single-season total by a quarterback in Big Sky history and the third-most ever by a Bobcat, period. He also scored 21 touchdowns, breaking a Dan Hass record that has stood since 1966.
This season, Andersen missed a significant amount of time with injury, including not playing in MSU’s final four games. Yet he still earned first-team All-Big Sky honors at outside linebacker by rolling up 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in limited action. He also still managed to rush for 336 yards and seven touchdowns.
Andersen enters his senior season with 2,263 rushing yards, the ninth-best total in school history. His 33 touchdowns are the second-most ever by a Bobcat behind Kirk. All this for a player who likely will playing primarily defensively in his final season at Montana State.
Honorable mention: QB Dakota Prukop, RB Chad Newell, RB Isaiah Ifanse, WR Julius Lloyd, WR Everett Gilbert, OT Conrad Burbank, C Joel Horn.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.