Game Recap

Vandals miss PAT, Bobcats prevail with homecoming victory

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BOZEMAN — As Jeff Choate took his normal seat in the team room at Bobcat Stadium, Montana State’s head football coach exhaled, letting out an audible sigh as he removed his hat, the relief of the moment washing over him as he briefly collected his thoughts.

Choate’s Bobcats managed just 12 first downs, possessed the ball for just 21 minutes and converted just four third downs against a familiar opponent playing in Bozeman for the first time since before most of the current Bobcats were born.

But Choate’s exhale had nothing to do with the disappointment of defeat. Because of a relentless defensive front that eventually wore Idaho down, the latest addition to Troy Andersen’s highlight reel, an errant extra point by an honors candidate and a group of Vandals without a timeout in the fourth quarter, Choate’s Bobcats finally snapped a streak of what were becoming oh-so-close heartbreaking losses at home.

Instead, Montana State celebrated a homecoming victory in front of an announced crowd of 19,177 that was noticeably less because of a sudden Bozeman blizzard that had temperatures below freezing all afternoon. Andersen gave the hosts their first lead in the third quarter by ripping off a 60-yard touchdown a play after a failed Idaho fourth down try, Tristan Bailey drilled a 42-yard field goal three plays after a Jahque Alleyne fourth-quarter interception to push the lead to a touchdown and Cade Coffey missed the potential game-tying extra point attempt with three minutes to play to boost Montana State a 24-23 win.

Montana State quarterback Troy Andersen (15) evades Idaho linebacker Kaden Elliss (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

“Coach Choate always talks about being a finisher versus a front-runner, finishing games like we did,” Montana State senior nose tackle Tucker Yates said after helping MSU’s defensive front create chaos at the line of scrimmage for the entire second half to spark a rally from a 17-7 hole. “When we are down, we have a veteran team with a veteran d-line. I know Troy is a competitor, O-line competes every play, we have competitors on this team. We don’t panic and at halftime, we know we are going to come out and play hard.”

As Montana State enters the stretch run of Choate’s third season at the helm, the Bobcats have physically dominated the Montana Grizzlies in a pair of signature wins that have highlighted the Choate era thus far. Almost every single one of the other 26 games under Choate and his staff come down to the final quarter.

The Bobcats lost their first game ever under Choate 20-17 in Moscow to Idaho, at the time an FBS team that would go on to win nine games, including a 61-50 win over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The season continued in the same fashion with the Bobcats losing the first three Big Sky games of the Choate era by 11 combined points.

Montana State running back Isaiah Ifanse (22) takes on Idaho defensive tackle Ben Taliulu (44)/by Brooks Nuanez

Last season, MSU lost to No. 4 South Dakota State by four, eventual Big Sky champion Weber State by eight and eventual national quarterfinalist Kennesaw State by two, all at Bobcat Stadium. Add in a one-point loss because of a failed two-point conversion at Northern Arizona and Saturday’s win felt that much sweeter.

MSU beat Bryant by three points in Choate’s home opener, hit a game-winning field goal to beat Northern Colorado on the road and outlasted Western Illinois for a three-point win to open this season. But Saturday’s triumph marked Montana State’s first close Big Sky Conference victory at home in the last three seasons, a breakthrough that pushed Montana State to 2-1 in league, 4-2 overall.

“I said coming into the game that I thought this was going to be a war and I knew Idaho would have their best,” Choate said. “I thought they played really well.

“Hard-fought Big Sky win. Good ol’ Montana State football here today at beautiful Bobcat Stadium. I’m really proud of the way our guys fought.”

Idaho held what seemed like a commanding 17-7 lead with 8:41 left in the third quarter. The game resembled the slugfest in Moscow two years ago. But this version of the Bobcats responded resoundingly to come all the way back.

On MSU’s second possession of the second half, Andersen finally exploited Idaho’s man coverage on the perimeter by hitting sophomore Lance McCutcheon for a 37-yard gain to set up Isaiah Ifanse’s two-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 17-14 with 6:46 left in the third quarter.

Montana State quarterback Troy Andersen (15) looks for space in the open field vs Idaho defenders/by Brooks Nuanez

Four minutes later, Andersen showed off his prodigious speed, taking a broken pass play and turning it into a footrace to the end-zone to give MSU its first lead. The latest long touchdown run his brief, spectacular career already packed full came one play after Idaho failed to convert a fourth down try from 40 yards from the end-zone.

“Huge momentum swing right there,” Choate said. “That was probably one of the most critical stretches in the game for us.”

MSU senior Tyrone Fa’anono pressured Idaho quarterback Mason Petrino into his lone turnover of the day as he threw a pick right to Alleyne with 8:21 to play. Montana State went 3-and-out for the fifth time in 13 possessions, but were close enough to settle for a 42-yard field goal from Bailey, his ninth make in 10 attempts this season.

“If I had the answer (to why MSU starts slow), we would start a lot faster,” Choate said. “We talk about it a lot and even the way we practice, we practice with a lot of our team drills early in practice to really emphasize that idea of starting fast.

“But the one thing I know is we have a group of young men that are going to fight hard regardless of the situation and they don’t panic. At halftime, I think our coaching staff does a good job of bringing them back together and focusing on what needs to be done. I think if we are within two scores of any game, we are going to be able to punch our way back into it and we did that this evening.”

Idaho’s deliberate offense continued churning. Petrino completed four passes, including three first down strikes, to move Idaho to the Montana State 9. On third down with just over three minutes remaining, Petrino pitched to wide receiver Jeff Cotton on fly sweep. Cotton pitched to David Ungerer, who looked for Petrino, a former wide receiver, in the corner of the end-zone.

Idaho wide receiver David Ungerer (2) evades Montana State safety Shawn Borges (26)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State had Petrino covered but no one to stop the shifty Ungerer’s cutback as he burst in for a nine-yard touchdown that most thought would tie the game with 3:07 left on the clock.

Instead, Coffey, a first-team All-Sun Belt selection last season in Idaho’s last year playing in the FBS barely missed the PAT.

“I thought the PAT was good by quite a distance to be honest,” Ungerer said. “I guess we will see it on tape. But I’m really sad for my teammates, the seniors and the coaches.”

Because of a combination of the crowd noise as Bobcat Stadium and the dysfunction of the offense — Idaho head coach Paul Petrino lit into his quarterback son on two of UI’s three second half timeouts, all used before the third quarter ended — Montana State needed to get just one first down to erase the final three minutes of game time.

“Heartbreaking,” said Paul Petrino, a Helena native who starred at Carroll College in the late 1980s. “I feel awful for the players and the coaches. We talked all week about playing for each other, playing our hearts out and I think we did. We just came up one point short.

“What we tried to do, what our game plan was we did. We just didn’t get a win. We wanted to keep possession of it, not let them be on the field. We did that for the most part…We just came up one point short and I don’t have all the answers.”

The loss drops Idaho to 1-2 in league play, 2-4 overall in the Vandals’ first year playing back in the Big Sky since 1995.

Idaho quarterback Mason Petrino (8) breaks the pocket vs Montana State rush/by Brooks Nuanez

“I’m just really sad for my teammates and our coaches because we battled our asses off today,” said Ungerer after finishing with game highs of eight catches for 70 yards. “We came into a tough environment and we really wanted this one today. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way.”

The Vandals burned all three of their timeouts on the first drive of the game, a nine-play scoring match capped by Isaiah Saunders’ four-yard touchdown run.

Montana State answered with an eight-play drive on its second possession capped by Andersen’s 35-yard touchdown run, one of five runs of at least 16 yards by Montana State’s bullish quarterback. The sophomore from Dillon looked out of place at times, spectacular others as the 6-foot-3, 225-pound converted running back/linebacker continues to navigate his time under center. He finished with 159 yards rushing on 14 carries, while completing 11-of-21 passes for 91 yards. The Bobcats rush for 225 yards on just 31 rushes.

The MSU offense notched just 12 first downs, converted just 4-of-12 third downs and possessed the ball for less than two minutes on seven of its possessions. But the Bobcats came up with big plays when needed, including Andersen’s two long scoring runs and McCutcheon’s long grab to set up Ifanse’s fourth touchdown of his rookie year.

Choate praised Petrino for his operation of Idaho’s offense, saying he could see that the Vandals “put a lot on his shoulders at the lien of scrimmage”. With sophomore quarterback Colton Richardson not on the trip because of a concussion suffered in a 64-28 loss to Idaho State, Petrino helped the Vandals to 23 first downs, 9-of-18 conversions on third down and nearly 39 minutes of possession. He completed 21-of-35 passes for 162 yards.

Idaho quarterback Mason Petrino (8) corralled by Montana State buck end Bryce Sterk (37)/by Brooks Nuanez

But Montana State’s defensive line had him under constant duress. Derek Marks notched MSU’s only sack Saturday but Fa’anono hit Petrino at least four times, junior Bryce Sterk smacked Idaho’s quarterback three times and Yates helped flush the deceivingly elusive Vandal signal caller.

“We got a lot of hits on the quarterback, we flushed him from the pocket a lot and one of the things we did was we stopped going with our speed rush and squeezed him a little bit and that allowed us to condense the pocket and not let him get out,” Choate said. “Even when it wasn’t a sack, he didn’t have the opportunity to extend the play with his legs. That was critical.”

With a converted running back and linebacker playing quarterback, Montana State notched a crucial win coming out of its bye week to enter the stretch with one less win than MSU totaled last season.

The Bobcat victory seems even more crucial given Saturday’s results around the rest of the conference. Weber State held Eastern Washington to 250 yards of total offense in a 14-6 win, meaning the Bobcats could engage in another slugfest in Ogden against the defending Big Sky champions next weekend. Montana State is ready to test its mettle once again coming off a critical win as MSU continues its quest to snap a playoff drought that dates back to November of 2014.

“If we just play as a team like we do in the second half of every game, we can put a solid game together all four quarters and we would be a really tough team to beat,” Yates said.

“This builds confidence. We have a huge game next week. I think we are just going to move on to that now, prepare for them. They are a great football team, a tough environment to play in so we are going to have to have a great week of preparation to go down there and finally play our best football.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. 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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