By Danny Waldo
For the past five weeks, the Montana State Bobcat football team had been cruising along, plucking off FCS opponents with relative ease following a season-opening loss at Texas Tech. The ‘Cats had jumped so far as No. 6 in one national poll, and looked the part of a legitimate contender for a Big Sky title with hopes of a deep playoff run.
Then, Black Saturday happened.
On Homecoming weekend, MSU was thoroughly dismantled by a better-than-advertised Sacramento State team in a game that wasn’t even as close as the final 34-21 score would indicate.
MSU now finds itself in regrouping mode heading into their bye week as they prepare for the final stretch of regular season action that includes a dangerous road trip to North Dakota, as well as a visit to UC Davis, whom many picked as their preseason league champion, and that’s before they host the ‘Griz in the annual Brawl of the Wild to close out the regular season.
Is it time to the hit the panic button? No, but the past three weeks have exposed some serious flaws in the Bobcats’ armor, so MSU’s coaches will be using their well-timed week off to try and right the ship before heading into their final five games of the regular season.
Here’s a look at the bad news.
After suffering a 45-10 blowout to FBS opponent Texas Tech to open the 2019 season, MSU held its next three opponents to an average of 311 yards of offense and 17 points per game to begin a three-game winning streak. But things began to change with the Northern Arizona contest, and for the past three weeks, Montana State’s defensive efficiency has been trending in the wrong direction. Over the past three conference games, MSU’s defensive prowess has slipped with teams averaging 385 yards of offense and 31 points.
The Bobcats have also found themselves on the negative side of the turnover battle over the past three games as well. Coming into the Northern Arizona game, MSU held a (+4) in the turnover margin, but since the Bobcats are (-1), including three alone in the come-from-behind win over the Lumberjacks.
But the biggest head-scratcher for Bobcat faithful near and far has been the ‘Cats penchant for getting off to a slow start and having to claw their way back in the second half. MSU has been outscored 110-94 in the first half through six games this season. However, the ‘Cats have been able to turn things around in the second half, outscoring their opponents 137-75. The stat has been flipped on MSU in the past two games, however, as Cal Poly and Sacramento State combined to outscore MSU 34-27, including the Mustangs 21-0 edge in the fourth quarter of their game two weeks ago.
Fortunately, for the Bobcats, their offense has been nearly unstoppable since making a switch at the quarterback position before the Norfolk State game. Since Tucker Rovig took over under center, MSU has averaged 473 yards of total offense and 40 points per game. MSU has also shown its depth at the running back position, with six different ballcarriers making significant contributions. Season-opening starter Isaiah Ifanse ran for 193 yards in a game and a half before suffering an injury that he is still battling back from. Logan Jones then received the bulk of the carriers in the Bobcats’ third game of the year at Western Illinois, where he rushed for a career-high 167 yards and two touchdowns. However, injuries have slowed him of late, leaving Oregon transfer, Travis Jonsen, as the ‘Cats feature back, a bell he has answered, rushing for 255 yards and 5 touchdowns to go along with 215 yards receiving over the past three games.
Several Bobcats have been bright spots for a team that sits in the top 5 of the conference standings, and the prospects for earning a playoff berth seemed promising considering MSU’s final five opponents have a combined 13-20 overall record.
The ‘Cats are ranked in the top half of the conference for total offense and defense in the Big Sky, including the No. 2 ranked rushing attack. MSU gives up the second least amount of sacks a game, while collecting the fourth most on defense. Their rush defense sits at No. 6 in the league, while their passing defense comes in at No. 7. Passing offense has been an Achilles heel for MSU during Jeff Choate’s tenure, and this year appears to be no different, as MSU currently ranks 11th in the conference, averaging under 200 yards a game.
In terms of statistical leaders, MSU has some notable stars on both sides of the ball, as Logan Jones is the No. 7 rated rusher in the league. Through seven games, Jones has 476 rushing yards to go along with five touchdowns. Meanwhile, Travis Jonsen is the No. 5 rated player for all-purpose yards, having collected 660 passing and receiving yards through six games. On special teams, punter Jerad Padmos is the No. 3 rated punter, averaging 45.3 yards per punt, with twelve of those kicks traveling 50+ yards, and nine of them being downed inside the 20-yard line. Padmos’ longest kick of the year, 76 yards, leads the Big Sky Conference.
Defensively, Bryce Sterk is second in the conference in tackles-for-loss with 10 solo tackles and five assists. Fellow defensive lineman, Derek Marks also ranks in the top 10, coming in at No. 8 with seven solos and three assists. Sterk is also the league leader in sacks with eight solos and one assist. Bozeman native, Callahan O’Reilly is the Bobcats’ leading tackler with 47 total. He collected a game-high 16 tackles in his first career start versus Cal Poly back on October 5th.
Currently, following their loss to Sacramento State, MSU sits in a tie with Idaho State, Eastern Washington and Portland State at 2-1 in the conference. Montana, Sacramento State and Weber State are all 2-0 in league play. The Bobcats were ranked as high as No.6 in the national polls heading into their Homecoming matchup, but they are sure to fall out of the Top 10 following the 34-21 setback to the Hornets.
MSU will have a full two weeks to prepare for their next contest, on the road at former Big Sky Conference member North Dakota on October 26th. The ‘Cats will return home to Bobcat Stadium to take on the Thunderbirds of Southern Utah on November 2nd. MSU will close out the 2019 season in November by visiting Norther Colorado (November 9) and UC Davis (November 16) before hosting the 119th Brawl of the Wild versus the Montana Grizzlies on November 23rd. The Bobcats will be looking to earn their fourth consecutive win in the series; that would be their longest win streak versus the Grizzlies since winning six in a row from 1972-1977.
For a complete schedule and list of upcoming game times, log onto the Bobcats’ homepage at www.msubobcats.com. •