Editor’s note: A day after this story went to press on Nov. 22, Montana State Head Coach Rob Ash was fired by the university.

By Colter Nuanez EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – For most of the season, it seemed like the Montana State Bobcats were chasing.

MSU entered the 2015 season with high expectations after last fall’s playoff appearance and a large contingent of returning players. Big Sky Conference coaches voted Montana State the preseason favorite to win the conference.

But an underperforming defense, an offense that failed to capitalize on opportunities, and a slew of misfortune led to the first losing season at Montana State since 2001. Following a 54-35 loss to bitter rival Montana on Nov. 21, the Bobcats close the 2015 campaign at 5-6 overall and 3-5 in Big Sky play. MSU’s streak of winning seasons snaps at 13, the longest in the conference.

Montana State fell behind 28-7 in the first quarter before rallying in a 55-50 loss to Eastern Washington; they were behind 42-14 before another rally fell short in a 49-41 loss at Northern Arizona; they also fell behind 35-21 at Portland State and could not come back in a 59-42 loss.

And the Bobcats gave up 31 straight points to Montana before rallying to cut the Griz lead to nine in the fourth quarter, only to lose to their arch rivals for the third straight time.

“It has been exhausting,” Montana State Head Coach Rob Ash said following his seventh loss to Montana in nine tries. “We just can’t put ourselves in those situations. The games we won this year were the games where we got out ahead and were able to sustain ourselves as a leading team.”

Bobcats’ wide receiver Jayshawn Gates scampers through the Grizzly defense during a losing effort in Bozeman.

Bobcats’ wide receiver Jayshawn Gates scampers through the Grizzly defense during a losing effort in Bozeman.

Montana State was at its best this fall when they bolted out of the starting gates, like jumping to a 21-0 lead in a 45-28 win over No. 20 Cal Poly – in retrospect Montana State’s best win this season. The Bobcats built an early 21-10 lead in a 35-13 win over Sacramento State, and MSU scored 34 unanswered points to bury Idaho State early in a 44-20 win.

On Nov. 21, Montana forced four straight turnovers and converted each one into quick touchdowns to turn a game in which Montana State led 7-0 into a 31-7 Griz advantage midway through the first half. The UM lead swelled to 37-14 by halftime as Brady Gustafson threw three of his four touchdowns in the first two quarters.

Early in the second half, MSU senior Trace Timmer snared an interception and Montana State converted the short field into a touchdown cutting the lead to 37-22. Montana’s next drive was extended by a phantom “roughing the punter” call as UM’s lead swelled again, to 44-22.

Dakota Prukop threw touchdown passes to Brandon Brown and Beau Sandland to begin the fourth quarter as MSU cut the Griz lead to 44-35 with nine minutes to play. But Gustafson’s third touchdown pass to Jamaal Jones and fourth overall sewed up a fifth straight win in Bozeman for the Grizzlies.

“I told them I loved them and that I really appreciate their effort because we battled back. We were behind so often, so much this year and we never, ever quit in a game,” Ash said.

For Ash, the losing season is the first since 2002 and only his fourth in a 36-year head-coaching career that includes stops at Division III Juanita and Drake before coming to Montana State in 2007. Before addressing the media following the loss to Montana, Ash said he would not talk about his future or that of the program because he wanted all the focus to be on the game, specifically the 17 seniors the Bobcats said goodbye to that afternoon.

“It’s been a tough season,” Ash said. “We had high expectations and we have a really good bunch of guys. I just feel terrible for the seniors on this team who have worked so hard and it just didn’t work out.”

Colter Nuanez is the creative director and senior writer for “Skyline Sports” (skylinesportsmt.com), an online newsgathering organization providing cutting edge coverage of Montana State University and Big Sky Conference sports. The award-winning sportswriter has worked for newspapers and magazines across the West and has covered the Big Sky since 2006.