Editor’s Note: Leading up to the 118th edition of the fierce football rivalry between the Bobcats and the Grizzlies, Skyline Sports will provide features on the game’s key matchups between Montana and Montana State.
Montana State has thrown for 107 yards or less in six games so far this season. The Bobcats are 5-1 in those contests, averaging 33.5 points per game in those games.
MSU enters the 118th showdown with its arch rivals from the University of Montana with the 12th-ranked passing offense in the 13-team Big Sky Conference. But the Bobcats have their first winning record since 2014 and are in the playoff hunt as Jeff Choate’s third season winds down.
The coaching staff has been under much scrutiny for playing what many consider an All-Big Sky linebacker at quarterback. But with the Grizzlies looming, what was once considered a stopgap and then a weakness is now considered perhaps the Bobcats’ greatest advantage against the fast, aggressive, Griz defense.
Troy Andersen is certainly limited when throwing the football. And Montana State’s offense has been largely one-dimensional with last year’s Big Sky Freshman of the Year at the controls. But Andersen’s efforts have earned him Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year consideration despite playing out of position under center.
With 154 more rushing yards, the 6-foot-3, 23-pound sophomore will break the 2014 Big Sky single-season record by a quarterback of 1,245 yards, held by former Cal Poly triple option guru Chris Brown. Andersen has 16 touchdown runs, the most in the league and the third-most in a single campaign in MSU school history.
Andersen is the most dangerous when he lines up in the shot gun and either sees an opening against a blitz or he finds an open gap and runs to daylight. The former state champion sprinter has scored six touchdowns of at least 49 yards, five additional touchdowns of at least 34 yards and a total of 13 touchdowns of more than 24 yards.
When the darting, powerful former running back gets in the open field, he can bowl over and through tacklers. When he sees open space, he’s almost always taking the opportunity to the house.
Montana, who enters Saturday’s rivalry game with an identical 6-4 record, has not played a running quarterback like Andersen this season. UM defeated Cal Poly 48-28 but the triple option is not similar to the gun-run elements of MSU’s spread power run attack. Portland State’s Davis Alexander and Idaho’s Mason Petrino can extend the pocket with their legs. But no one in the Big Sky, opponent of Montana this season or not, compares to the electrifying, unorthodox Montana State quarterback.
“We were kind of trying to figure that out: who is the most like us that they have played,” said Choate, who watched Andersen score a pair of touchdowns as a running back in MSU’s 31-23 win over Montana in Bozeman last season, the second straight win in the rivalry for the Bobcats. “They really haven’t played anyone who has a runner like Troy. You talk about the Cal Poly game but that’s a completely different animal. I know they will have a good scheme for us. It’s a little difficult for us to know if that’s going to change.
“But I will say this: just like anything else, we are who we are after 10 games. What you see on film is what you are going to get. They aren’t going to invent a new defense to stop what we do and we aren’t going to create a new defense to stop what they do.”
If Montana does have the answer of how to slow down Andersen — he’s rushed for more than 100 yards in seven of his eight starts — it will likely be in the form of its star linebacker duo.
All-American Josh Buss entered his senior year as the preseason Big Sky Conference Defensive MVP. Montana junior Dante Olson is the leading candidate for the league’s postseason MVP award.
“I think they have two excellent linebackers in Olson and Buss who are playing at an extremely high level,” Choate said. “The Olson kid is a tackling machine. He’s a physical guy and once he gets his hands on you, you are probably on the ground. Buss is dynamic, can track guys down. He’s got excellent speed.”
In his first year as a starter, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Olson is leading the conference in tackles by a wide margin. He has 133 total stops, breaking Kendrick Van Ackeren’s 2015 school record. His tackle total is 41 more than any player in the league. His 11 tackles for loss are tied for fourth, as are his team-leading six sacks.
“He is a really good football player,” said Choate, who also questioned the validity of Olson’s tackle numbers simply based on basic play count and number of opportunities. “He creates a lot of turnovers. He’s an excellent tackler. When he gets his hands on you, you are on the ground. He’s more physical than you think. I think their scheme lightens him up and also Josh, gives those guys opportunities to make plays.
“And they are two of the best players they have on their team. It’s wise how they approach it. You can see the thought process that goes into the coaching. They are going to allow two of their best players to have some freedom and keep them clean and moving a lot of guys a the line of scrimmage and not letting those linemen climb to the second level. Those guys are taking advantage of it.”
In defensive coordinator Kent Baer’s 4-2-5 stack defense, the defensive linemen move often both before and after the snap, using twists and crashes to eat up blocks and let UM’s linebackers, particularly Olson, roam free. The scheme employs a variety of pressures that more than one opposing coach has called “exotic”.
Those pressures have helped Montana register 17 of its 24 sacks with non-defensive linemen. Buss and Olson have combined for 11.5 sacks and if you add in sophomore Jace Lewis’ 2.5 sacks, UM’s top three linebackers have accounted for 60 percent of Montana’s quarterback takedowns.
But Montana State has given up a league-low nine sacks and Andersen is averaging 7.9 yards per carry. When teams have blitzed Andersen, he has often exploited the pressure.
On a third down blitz, Idaho missed a gap and Andersen took off for a 60-yard go-ahead touchdown in a 24-23 win. Against Weber State, the league’s leading team in sacks, Andersen exploited a blitz to the tune of a 71-yard touchdown. Against Cal Poly, despite tweaking his knee earlier in the game, Andersen found a gap in a broken pressure and coasted in for a 49-yard touchdown.
“He’s a good athlete, a good player,” Buss said. “We are excited to get our assignments today and focus on doing our jobs. That’s really all it comes down to: doing our job and our assignments.”
When posed a question framed through the statement that Montana State’s strength is its defensive front, Montana head coach Bobby Hauck cut the media member off to give his opinion during his press conference on Monday.
“I think the quarterback is the strength of their team,” Hauck interjected.
Andersen has accounted for nearly half of MSU’s runs or passes this season despite missing two starts at quarterback because of surgery following a 26-23 victory to open the season for the Bobcats. He is closing in on a variety of records and his sophomore season will go down in Big Sky lore, particularly if he finishes career playing another position.
“He’s a good athlete and he’s a good player but we have to go play,” Hauck said. “That’s what it’s about. There are 10 other guys out there too that are helping him. We just gotta go play hard and hope to play well.”
Because Andersen is naturally wired to play a physical position like running back or linebacker, Choate has consistently talked about his quarterback’s need to calm down and find poise. Choate said he recognized right away in his high-strung pupil during MSU’s team meetings on Sunday that he would need to keep Andersen steady this week before unleashing him on the Griz on Saturday afternoon.
“Talking to the team yesterday and I’m looking at him and going, ‘We are going to have to reel this guy in,” Choate said. “He is so amped up right now. He’s just going to have to play within himself and he’ll calm down eventually. But when he does, he’ll be hard to bring down.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.