As Dakota Prukop enters his fourth season as a Montana State Bobcat, he remembers the leaders who came before him. He remembers the high of watching from the sidelines as a redshirt in 2012 as the Bobcats pulled out a second-round playoff win over Stony Brook under the Bobcat Stadium lights. He remembers the low of watching his elders weep as their careers ended at home with a loss to rival Montana in 2013. And he remembers the optimism he felt in 2014, a feeling that was quickly thwarted by disappointment yet again as the Bobcats lost their final two games last season.
Prukop is no longer an upstart sophomore fighting for respect in his first year replacing a legend. Now Prukop is the alpha dog of Big Sky Conference quarterbacks and an alpha dog on a Montana State team he hopes is poised to make a run deep into the post season.
“The way I carry myself now, it comes with being older and when you get elected as a team captain, for the four of us, that’s the team giving you the right to be an alpha,” Prukop said on a smoky Thursday in August. “The biggest thing I learned throughout my high school career (in Austin, Texas), I remember sitting in my high school coach’s office and he was talking to me about leadership. He was great in leadership, outstanding man, had a ton of influence in my life. He used to talk about the best leaders he ever had been around led by example before they led vocally. He explained how it’s such a long, long process in earning trust so you have weight behind your words. No one wants a leader who is extremely vocal who has no weight behind his words. No one is going to listen. It just becomes white noise.
“My first couple of years, you can go back and read stuff and it will say that ‘Dakota wasn’t a very vocal leader.’ I’m a very vocal person. That was on purpose. I didn’t want to be a vocal leader until I had the right to be a vocal leader.
“The other thing my coach taught me was if everyone approves of what you are doing, you are doing something wrong. You can’t make everyone happy. That’s the tough part about being an alpha on the team. You can’t make everyone happy. You will ruffle some feathers. You will rub some guys the wrong way. But it comes with the job.”
Montana State has experienced a sustained run of success this decade, sharing Big Sky Conference crowns in 2010, 2011 and 2012 while qualifying for the playoffs four of the last five seasons. But the success has largely ended in the regular season. Montana State is 2-4 in the FCS playoffs under head coach Rob Ash.
Last season, Montana State jolted to an 8-3 start that included a few jaw-dropping offensive performances. During a two-week jaunt through California, the Bobcats scored 136 points as Prukop amassed almost 1,000 total yards. But the downfalls of the MSU defense were already surfacing. Montana State gave up 56 points to win by a field goal at Sacramento State and 37 points in a 40-point drubbing of UC Davis. Montana State would end up giving up 33.5 points per game, including 47 to South Dakota State at home in the first round of the playoffs as the Bobcats’ season ended with two straight losses. The other defeat was a 34-7 beat down at the hands of Montana in Missoula.
This year, a sense of urgency lingers throughout the entire team. MSU returns Prukop with an arsenal of weapons: four running backs and eight wide receivers expected to contribute behind an offensive line that returns in tact. The coaching staff knows the roster is flush with talent. The players know the Bobcats should have exceptional depth offensively and be able to score points with any team in the FCS. And the defense knows that a marked improvement will be absolutely necessary if a national title run is going to take place.
“I feel it,” MSU senior left tackle John Weidenaar said. “Being a senior, I want to have things last longer. I want to be in the season longer because I want to be with the guys longer. These are my brothers. I want to be with them as long as I can and with my coaches. We have to draw out this experience. I’m scared of the end. It’s going to be bittersweet. But I believe we can make a run at winning it all. We have to want to be great.”
This season’s Montana State defense will feature a collection of seniors but not an abundance of experience. Bryson Keeton returns for his second year as a starter at cornerback. He’ll play opposite senior Trace Timmer, a first-time starter. The safety group loses three seniors and adds one in the form of UAB transfer Des Carter. He’ll start next to a rotation of freshmen and sophomores. At linebacker, redshirt freshman Grant Collins will try to become a four-year starter in the middle. He’ll be flanked by junior Fletcher Collins and sophomore Mac Bignell. Up front, the defensive line will feature senior Connor Thomas and Nate Bignell along with captain Taylor Sheridan on the inside. Junior Zach Hutchins is the only upperclassmen at end that isn’t a transfer.
“I’ve heard from everyone here to take it all in and enjoy the little things, even conditioning and stuff like that,” said Sheridan, along with Keeton the only returning starter and one who earned second-team All-Big Sky accolades last season. “I’m trying to enjoy all the little things. But at the same time, I want to be the best and I want this defense to be the best. We try to keep everyone dealing with what they need to do. As far as the sense of urgency, yes because you always feel it when you think about game time.
“I feel the pressure because this is my last one. We have to make it happen.”
A key factor in Montana State’s late-season demise the last two seasons has been the prevalence of untimely injuries to key players. In 2013, quarterback DeNarius McGhee missed the first month of the season after separating his throwing shoulder and played the final two games with torn ligaments in his knee. Captain running back Cody Kirk also played on a bum knee for the final two weeks of the season. Record-setting wide receiver and captain Tanner Bleskin played the season finale against Montana with a lacerated kidney. Senior captain defensive end and eventual Buck Buchanan Award winner Brad Daly’s list of ailments stretched from bad back to dislocated elbow. And that’s just the list of stars.
Last season, Montana State lost five receivers for the season before conference play began. Speedster Shawn Johnson missed multiple games with head and hamstring injuries. Captain middle linebacker Na’a Moeakiola was the shell of his 2012 All-Big Sky self after missing all of 2013 and never fully recovering from shoulder surgery. Defensive tackle Taylor Dees played the second half of the season with a torn MCL in his knee. Sheridan played the stretch run with nerve damage in his shoulders. Safeties Rob Marshall and the late Eryon Barnett were both in and out of the lineup with a variety of injuries.
The most crucial injury might’ve been to Prukop. The dual-threat quarterback sprained his MCL while diving into the end-zone for a game-sealing touchdown against Portland State. The injury cost him starts against Idaho State (a 44-38 MSU win) and Montana. He returned against SDSU but was a shell of himself, unable to move in the pocket or get outside of it.
“One big thing for us is it always seems like we have some uncanny injuries at the wrong time and so staying healthy and fresh this year will be a key all the way throughout the season,” All-America guard J.P. Flynn said. “A lot of that goes off to (strength and conditioning) Coach Wilcox. He knows how to rest, recover and still work us out at the same time. He did a great job this summer.”
Prukop acknowledged another factor holding Montana State back was a lack of internal continuity. A season ago, MSU had 17 seniors, including 11 on the defensive side of the ball. All but first-team All-Big Sky selections Tiai Salanoa, Deonte Flowers and Alex Singleton failed to live up to expectations. Meanwhile, the core of the team, the primary leaders began to emerge but most were underclassmen like Prukop, Flynn and running back Chad Newell.
Now the trio are all juniors, as is confident running back Gunnar Brekke. Senior captain Mitch Griebel brings an added element of swagger amongst the receivers. It seems the youngsters finally have a voice.
“Over the last two seasons, we’ve had a strong team but not as unified as this one,” Prukop said. “It’s different. There’s no break in the team. There’s no division between older and young guys. The team is very close-knit, tight knit. We always say that but over the last two seasons, it hasn’t been what it could’ve been. That’s the different between two or three wins in my opinion. We have that this year.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.