Montana State’s punishing running attack is not just a ground and pound operating behind a veteran, stout offensive line, although the Bobcats are formidable up front.
The Bobcats are also one of the most diverse rushing attacks in the country in terms of the variety of ways they run the ball and the variety of players they run the ball with.
Entering Saturday’s rivalry showdown against No. 3 Montana in Bozeman, MSU has seen 19 different players notch a rush this season. Montana State has rushed for 2,859 yards this season, the most in the Big Sky Conference. Eight different players have rushed for at least 100 yards, five different players have rushed for more than 300 yards and the Cats are averaging a shade short of six yards per carry.
MSU is rushing for 260 yards per game and has scored 33 rushing touchdowns, including at least one score by 11 different players. Running backs, quarterbacks, wide receivers; the Bobcats come at opposing defenses in waves.
In the 119th rendition of the rivalry at Bobcat Stadium, MSU’s continued ability to run the rock will be one of the pinnacle matchups in the clash. And a bone-crushing Griz defense that leads the league in rushing yards per game allowed will be tasked with slowing down that assorted MSU rushing attack.
“That’s going to be the whole key,” Montana State head coach Jeff Choate said. “We are not reinventing ourselves and they are not reinventing themselves. Over 11 games, you have what you have on film and you are who you are. Doing something different dramatically and trying to reinvent the wheel so to speak is not good. If we run the ball enough and effectively enough, we are going to get some creases. That’s the nature of it.”
Standing in the way of finding those creases is a revamped Montana front flush with aggressive young talent and a pair of the best linebackers in the Big Sky and the FCS.
“Controlling up front and just like every week, the formula is to stop the run,” UM senior Dante Olson said. “That’s what we’ve got to do.”
In two years under head coach Bobby Hauck as the centerpiece of defensive coordinator Kent Baer’s defense, Olson has established himself as one of the most prolific linebackers in the history of the school and the history of the league. Last season, he shattered Montana’s single-season record for tackles with 151. He was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award given to the top defensive player in the FCS.
This season, Olson is on the same pace. He has 133 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
“Dante Olson is a tremendous player,” Montana State captain Travis Jonsen, who has rushed for 432 yards and six touchdowns while catching 37 balls for 445 yards and a score, said earlier this week. “Their front 7 is really great. Their secondary is really good. It’s going to be a tough challenge for us but we will be ready.”
Jace Lewis, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior from Townsend, Montana, has been one of the breakout players in the Big Sky. Last season, he was a solid third linebacker behind Olson and Josh Buss, rolling up 62 tackles. This season, he’s been a tackling machine, piling up 104 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
“Their linebackers are really good,” Choate said. “I think that’s the heart and soul of their defense.
“It’s always going to go through the Olson kid. The one thing that stands out to me about their defense, and if you are a guy who can understand defensive football, you can appreciate this is they pursue the ball very, very well. This group runs to the ball, they tackle well and even if they miss a tackle, the eraser is always effort and these kids play really hard.”
Montana State’s prolific rushing performance is a continuation of the production that has become commonplace under Choate and his staff. The Bobcats became the first team other than Cal Poly to lead the league in rushing since the Mustangs joined the Big Sky in 2012 when the ‘Cats led the league in 2017. MSU will certainly win its second rushing crown in three seasons this year. The Bobcats have nearly 500 more yards than Cal Poly’s triple-option attack on 100 less carries.
Those statistics are made even more impressive by several facts. First, MSU has relied more than any team in the conference on the quarterback run game the last three seasons with Chris Murray and Troy Andersen manning the controls of the offense. MSU sophomore Tucker Rovig is not a dual threat but MSU has still manafcatured rushing yards out of the quarterback spot by playing Jonsen, Andersen (who also starts at outside linebacker) and senior wide receiver Kevin Kassis at quarterback.
“We will try to do our best to prepare,” Hauck said. “If they play one guy at quarterback the whole game, we will be ready for it whoever that is. If it’s 15 (Andersen), we will be ready for him.
“If you would’ve asked me in 1995 when I first saw this stuff, I would’ve said it was hard to stop it. But it’s not like we haven’t seen it for the last 24, 25 years. The first time I ended up seeing it was the (Michael) Bishop kid at Kansas State who ended up getting drafted by the Patriots. It was hard because we hadn’t seen it before. But a lot of people are running a lot of quarterback run stuff these days.”
Montana State has also piled up yards despite Andersen nursing ailments in his ankle and shoulder all season while also playing an increased load on defense. The junior from Dillon has rushed for 336 yards on 49 carries and scored a team-best seven rushing touchdowns. He has also piled up 54 total tackles, second on the Bobcats, including 6.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, each top-five totals in the league.
In four of the last five games and six total games this season, Andersen has scored a touchdown and notched a tackle for loss. He has scored a touchdown and notched a sack on the very next defensive series three times in 2019.
“I have not seen that kind of production over that span, to be able to give you a spark on the offensive side of the ball when you need it and playing really consistently at a high level on defense, there is nothing like Troy,” Choate said. “I think you get to the end of the year and you start talking about this stuff and maybe he didn’t play on that side of the ball during our league games, I don’t know if anybody has had a bigger impact on the defensive side than he has.”
MSU has also done it without the services of Isaiah Ifanse for most of the league schedule. Last fall, the Bellevue, Washington product and former Washington Gatorade Player of the Year, became the first Bobcat freshman to ever rush for more than 1,000 yards.
This season, Ifanse rushed for 77 yards against Texas Tech and 114 yards, including a 62-yard dash in a 38-17 win over No. 12 Southeast Missouri State in the first half. But he went down with a knee issue and did not return. He did not play the next four games, got just one carry in a 34-21 loss to Sacramento State, earn five carries in a 16-12 loss at North Dakota and did not play in wins over Southern Utah or Northern Colorado.
He returned last week to rushed for 77 yards on 10 carries and score a touchdown in a pivotal 27-17 win over UC Davis that likely punched MSU’s playoff ticket for the second straight season.
“Isaiah is a great player and our run game is really good regardless,” Jonsen said. “Our offensive line does a tremendous job up front. I think with Isaiah back, that opens up things. But Logan Jones, Lane Sumner do just as well.”
Jones has rushed for a career-high 667 yards and six touchcdowns during his fifth and final year. Sumer has rushed for 349 yards and five touchdowns in his first year of real action. Even walk-on Shane Perry rushed for more than 100 yards against Norfolk State and has 225 yards and two scores this season.
But Saturday against the Grizzlies, Choate knows he’s going to need the best out of his best if Montana State wants to conquer Olson and the physical Grizzlies.
“In big games, your playmakers have to arrive. Period,” Choate said. “If you don’t have your best guys ready to go and compete and make plays for you, that will be an advantage for your opponent.”
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