For most of the season, it seemed like the Montana State Bobcats were chasing.
MSU entered the 2015 season with high expectations after last fall’s playoff appearance and a large contingent of returning players. Coaches from around the Big Sky Conference voted Montana State as the preseason favorite to win the league.
But an underperforming defense, an offense that failed to capitalize on opportunities and a slew of misfortune led to the first losing season at Montana State since 2001. Following Saturday’s 54-35 loss to bitter rival Montana, the Bobcats close the campaign at 5-6 overall, 3-5 in Big Sky play. MSU’s streak of winning seasons snaps at 13, the longest in the league.
Montana State fell behind 28-7 in the first quarter before rallying in a 55-50 loss to Eastern Washington. MSU fell behind 42-14 before another rally fell short in a 49-41 loss at Northern Arizona. MSU fell behind 35-21 against Portland State and could not come back in a 59-42 loss at Portland State. And the Bobcats gave up 31 straight points to Montana before rallying to cut the Griz lead to nine in the fourth quarter only to lose to their arch rivals for the third straight time, 54-35.
“It has been exhausting,” Montana State head coach Rob Ash said following his seventh loss to Montana in nine tries. “It’s worn us out. We just can’t put ourselves in those situations. The games we won this year were the games where we got out ahead and were able to sustain ourselves as a leading team. All the other games…it was a strange year that way because it was either one or the other.”
Montana State was at its best this fall when the Bobcats bolted out of the starting gates. MSU burst out to a 21-0 lead in a 45-28 win over No. 20 Cal Poly, in retrospect Montana State’s best win this season. The Bobcats Build an early 21-10 lead in a 35-13 win over Sacramento State. Montana State scored 34 unanswered points to bury Idaho State early in a 44-20 win.
On Saturday, Montana forced four straight turnovers and converted each one into quick touchdowns to turn a game in which Montana State lead 7-0 into a 31-7 Griz advantage midway through the first half. The UM lead swelled to 37-14 by halftime as Brady Gustafson threw three of his four touchdowns in the first two periods, including long bombs for scores on the play immediately following a fourth down stop by the Griz defense.
“This offense has so many playmakers and it’s really a matter of whom they want to take away,” said Gustafson, a Billings West product who threw for 353 yards in his first Cat-Griz start.
UM senior Jamaal Jones dropped a sure touchdown early in the game only to redeem himself three times over. On Jones’ first touchdown, he stopped on a dime and made two Bobcats miss as he jaunted in from eight yards out. On his second touchdown, Gustafson threw deep and Jones nearly dropped the ball again, only to secure it and race 54 yards to the end zone to capitalize on Kendrick Van Ackeren’s interception.
“The first one, I just didn’t want to be great. If I make a drop like that, I just don’t want to be great,” said Jones, who finished with nine catches for 132 yards to give him 1,092 yards this season. “The second one, I decided to be great.”
Early in the second half, MSU senior Trace Timmer snared an interception and Montana State converted the short field into a touchdown to cut the lead to 37-22.
“Huge, great play, really fueled our rally,” Ash said. “I can’t say enough about Trace Timmer. The season he put in here, started out as a starter, got benched, got hurt, fought his way back through on special teams and earned his way back on the field, played a fantastic football game last week and played very hard and well again today. He’s a guy you just love having on your football team. He should be really proud the way he finished his career.”
Montana’s next drive was extended by a phantom roughing the punter call as UM’s lead again swelled to 44-22. On a block attempt, MSU sophomore wide receiver Jayshawn Gates came free. He nearly touched the ball but made no contact with UM senior Chris Lider. Thanks to a great acting job, flags flew, Montana was awarded a first down and the Griz converted the drive into a touchdown.
“Key play, a very, very critical play in this game,” Ash said. “The guys in the booth were telling me about it but I obviously haven’t seen a replay. That’s what the guys in the booth were saying to me. Again, that’s the way the game is.”
MSU junior quarterback Dakota Prukop threw touchdown passes to Brandon Brown and Beau Sandland to begin the fourth quarter as MSU cut the Griz lead to 44-35 with nine minutes to play. But Gustafson’s third touchdown pass to Jones and fourth overall sewed up a fifth straight win in Bozeman for the Grizzlies.
“I’m just so proud of our whole team,” Van Ackeren, who had 13 tackles and a sack, said. “No matter what we’ve been through, and we’ve been through a whole lot with certain situations, different things happening and to come out and be able to be a family on the field and be a team is amazing to me. It’s not surreal to me because I know how we are. We are going to continue to be our team and hopefully that will be five more games.”
Prukop threw for 313 yards and three touchdowns but was largely held in check running the ball. He gained 37 yards on the final carry of the game to finish with 47. A sprained ankle suffered in a 34-23 loss to Southern Utah continued to ail him noticeably. On MSU’s first fourth-down try during the string of four straight turnovers, Prukop ran a quarterback sweep to the right. He immediately saw Van Ackeren and cut back to the left. He looked like he would beat Van Ackeren to the corner but the swift UM linebacker cleaned Prukop up before reaching the first down marker.
“They loaded it up and brought some pressure off the edge,” Prukop said. “I knew if we were going to hit that, I was going to have to read the end man and try to cut back behind them. I took the cut, saw the linebacker so I tried to bounce it back like I normally do. What I would’ve liked to do was get back up field right away, plant off that left. I just didn’t feel confident today running, the crazy cuts I like to normally make.
“I was hoping (the ankle) would be a little better than it was. It was better than last week.”
Prukop finished the season with 3,025 passing yards and 28 passing touchdowns. He added 797 yards on the ground and 11 rushing scores. His 3,822 yards of total offense were 26 short of Travis Lulay’s single-season record. His 38 total touchdowns breaks Kelly Bradley’s 31-year-old mark. But missing the playoffs for the first time in two years as a starter is what the junior will remember.
“Missed opportunities,” Prukop said. “With the group we had, I felt like we really could’ve done anything we set our mind to. You have to execute. Everyone has to do their job. It takes 11 guys. When 10 guys do their jobs, you aren’t going to have a successful play. We can build off of this. We bring a lot of skill back on offense. We have a lot of young guys on the offensive line that are going to be led by J.P. (Flynn) They are going to be just fine, offensive line is always fine. I just have to continue to get better. I have to work on everything from football to being a leader. This program, with the support we have, we should be able to do anything we want. If we can just get everyone to buy in, next year’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Flynn, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound junior, will be the lone returning starter for the Bobcat offensive line next season. He suffered what Ash called a “severe” knee injury on Saturday. He will have an MRI later this week.
For Ash, the losing season is the first since 2002 and only his fourth in a 36-year head coaching career that includes stops at Division III Juanita and Drake before coming to Montana State in 2007. Before addressing the media following the loss to Montana, Ash said he would not talk about his future or the future of the program because he wanted all the focus to be on the game, specifically the 17 seniors the Bobcats said goodbye to on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s been a tough season,” Ash said. “We had high expectations and we have a really good bunch of guys. We REALLY have a good bunch of guys. That’s the most heartbreaking part. I just feel terrible for the seniors on this team who have worked so hard and it just didn’t work out.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.