Big Sky Conference

Strong second half propels Bobcats to league win at Portland State

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For all the changes, differences and similarities in the way Montana State has been operating under Brent Vigen and his largely new coaching staff, it took a reversion to a former identity for the Bobcats to help Vigen earn his first Big Sky Conference contest.

And that affirmation helped MSU enter a comfort zone in a 30-17 win at Portland State in the first league game of the Vigen era.

Montana State rushed for 254 yards, including 217 yards on 30 aggressive carries from MSU junior tailback Isaiah Ifanse as the Bobcats averaged 5.3 yards per carry to move to 3-1 since Vigen took the reigns.

“It was awesome, the offensive line did a great job and we kept on running the right plays,” Ifanse said following the second 200-yard rushing game of his career and the 11th 100-yard effort. “Throughout the whole entire year, they have been doing their jobs. It’s on us to find the holes they create.”

MSU led the Big Sky Conference in rushing in 2018 and 2019 under the guidance of smash-mouth head coach Jeff Choate. The Bobcats are the only team to lead the league in rushing yards other than Cal Poly since the former triple-option Mustangs joined the league in 2012.

The returns of the non-conference for Vigen’s first three games at the helm were largely positive. The Bobcat defense operated efficiently and with aggression during a 2-1 start that included a near-upset at Wyoming and a pair of dominant victories over a pair of non-scholarship FCS squads from the Pioneer Football League.

Saturday in the City of Roses, in front of a crowd of 4,095 that included a variety of MSU faithful, Montana State struggled with Portland State’s fronts in the unorthodox flex defensive scheme the Vikings operate.

PSU stud quarterback Davis Alexander, who started his 34th straight game Saturday, guided the Vikings on a pair of scoring drives in the first frame, including a nine-play, 87-yard drive capped by his 10-yard touchdown toss to tight end Nate Bennett. That sore put PUS up 10-3 with 2:45 left in the first quarter.

Montana State’s offense faced many question marks entering the season, most of them focused on a desired improvement in the Bobcats’ passing game and quarterback play.

Through the first three games of the Vigen era, Montana State ran the football adequately but not dominantly. MSU quarterback Matt McKay operated steadily but not spectacularly. Saturday, MSU had a hard time getting on track offensively in any fashion, particularly in the red-zone, as the Bobcats entered halftime trailing 10-9.

Freshman kicker Blake Glessner hit all three of his first-half field goal attempts, moving to 6-of-8 during his rookie season.

Out of the halftime locker room, MSU turned to its premier ball carrier. Vigen went with freshman Tommy Mellott at quarterback and ran read-option for most of the first half of the third quarter. Even when MSU’s first possession of the second half ended in a change of possession, the Bobcats kept plowing.

The visitors forced a punt that Coy Steel returned 45 yards into the red-zone on PSU’s first offensive possession after halftime. A penalty and a nine-yard Ifanse touchdown jaunt followed to give Montana State it’s first lead, 16-10, early in the third quarter.

PSU would gain the lead one more time as Malik Walker totaled 43 yards on the ground for an offense that averaged 1.7 yards par carry against a Bobcat defense that rolled up eight tackles for loss.

MSU totaled four sacks of PSU quarterback Davis Alexander. Montana State senior defensive end Daniel Hardy led the defensive charge with seven total tackles, including 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss in his return to his hometown.

“It felt great, especially to do it in front of my family,” Hardy said. “I had my whole family here. We played our hearts out and they gave us their best shot. I thought we did a great job of doing this as brothers and coming out as a family and winning this.

“I woke up and when you wake up in a different place, you think where am I but I thought, I am at home. I got to see my mom yesterday, my sister. Just knowing I’m playing for someone more than myself, It’s huge because I’m on my last leg an I know I am playing for something more than me.”

Walker’s one-yard touchdown plunge with 4:39 left in the third quarter gave Portland State it’s last lead, 17-16. But Montana State dominated the final frame as Ifanse kept on cranking and senior wide receiver Lance McCutcheon continued his quest to earn elite Big Sky pass catching status.

Ifanse rushed for 75 of his 217 yards in the fourth quarter, including a 35-yard gash play that was one of three runs of more than 30 yards.

This is a great win,” said Ifanse, a native of Bellevue, Washington and a former Washington Gatorade Player of the Year. “They really challenged us. They are a great team. In the second half, we really picked it up and did the right thing.”

McCutcheon, a Bozeman High product, carried the day before the run game took over. He caught eight passes for 161 yards and a 20-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to give Montana State the lead back for good.

In the fourth quarter, MSU junior quarterback Matt McKay found fullback Jaharie Martin for the bruiser’s second touchdown in as many weeks, including his first receiving touchdown as a Bobcat. That capped the scoring and helped Montana State move to 1-0 in Big Sky play during the Vigen era.

“Portland State gave us fits all day and their quarterback is a tremendous player,” Vigen said. “They are challenging to handle. Our guys didn’t veer off the plan. It was 10-9 at halftime and I feel like we hadn’t played real well but we were in position. We didn’t score like we want but we finished at the end so I’m pleased with that.

“We are a unified group and today really solidified that. Our guys understand that we have to hang in there. Our guys realize we have to keep fighting, believe in each other and good things will happen.”

Photos courtesy of Portland State athletics. 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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