By Colter Nuanez EBS Contributor
The quest for any semblance of success comes down to the final two weeks of the 2016 season for the Montana State Bobcats.
Jeff Choate took over for Rob Ash, Montana State’s all-time leader in coaching wins, in December of 2015. Choate redefined the culture and personality of the Bobcats, turning a team that thrived off pizzazz and offensive fireworks the first half of this decade into a team built on toughness, physicality and competitive spirit.
The first-year MSU head coach galvanized and won over his team easily during spring drills. Over the summer, Choate added 34 new players to the roster as the Bobcats began what would become a stark rebuilding process. Exiting fall camp, cautious optimism defined the program.
In its season opener, Montana State took Football Bowl Subdivision team Idaho down to the wire before losing 20-17. The next two weeks, MSU dispatched of overmatched opponents Bryant and Western Oregon at home to enter Big Sky Conference play.
Even after a 17-15 home loss Sept. 24 to North Dakota, one of the preseason league title favorites, prospects for Choate’s first season looked bright.
The Bobcats took their bye week the final week of October and November began with the same demons that have haunted Montana State all season.
The Bobcats turned the ball over five times in the UND loss, a trend that continued during Montana State’s sixth straight loss Nov. 5, a 38-21 defeat at Southern Utah to fall to 0-6 in league play (2-7 overall). MSU turned the ball over four times against the Thunderbirds, including three interceptions by true freshman quarterback Chris Murray.
The Bobcats now have 23 turnovers against Big Sky Conference competition. MSU is minus-19 in turnover margin during six league games, by far the worst mark in the conference. Montana State has turned the ball over at least four times in five of its six Big Sky games, including at least five turnovers three different times.
Montana State built a 17-14 lead just before halftime Oct. 22 against No. 3 Eastern Washington in Bozeman, the week before the Bobcats’ bye. But fumbles and missed opportunities combined with EWU’s ability to make plays offensively led to 27 unanswered points for the visitors in a 41-17 Eagles win.
Playing in Cedar City, Utah, for the first time since 2012, Montana State dominated the first half against the Thunderbirds. The Bobcats allowed just 11 rushing yards in the first half and with two minutes to play before intermission, MSU led 14-7. But Steven Wroblewski’s 40-yard reception set up Cameron Chambers’ 18-yard touchdown catch to steal the momentum with a little over a minute remaining before the break.
Murray threw two second-half interceptions, the Bobcats failed on a fourth down try and the Thunderbirds kept the momentum for the entire second half. MSU got a late touchdown—the first of wide receiver Keon Stephens’ career—with 55 seconds left, but the margin was too wide.
MSU now has just two chances left to avoid its first winless conference campaign since former head coach Mike Kramer’s first season in 2000. Montana State hosts struggling UC Davis (1-5, 2-7) for its final home game Nov. 12. The Bobcats close the season Nov. 19 against fierce rival Montana in Missoula.
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.