By Colter Nuanez EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – Montana State began its third season under head coach Jeff Choate by squaring off against two of the best teams from the top conference in the Football Championship Subdivision. An unorthodox, gritty effort in the opener on Aug. 30 helped the Bobcats emerge from the two-game stretch with a win and a loss.

Montana State senior defensive end Tyrone Fa’anono gets around the edge against Western Illinois.

In MSU’s opener on a Thursday night under the Bobcat Stadium lights, running back-turned linebacker-turned Bobcat starting quarterback Troy Andersen looked skittish in the first half and physically dominant in the second, leading the hosts to a 26-23 victory over Western Illinois in front of a capacity crowd.

“We have to finish, and this is a good team,” Choate said following his first head coaching win in a season opener. “This was an eight-win team with a lot of the core guys they had from a year ago. This was a big win for our program because we hadn’t tasted that moment of success in some of these really tight contests. I think this can be a jumping off point for us. But one game doesn’t a season make.”

In Montana State’s first game of September the Bobcats traveled to Brookings, South Dakota, to take on No. 3 South Dakota State. The second straight Missouri Valley Football Conference opponent for the Bobcats produced a lopsided result.

With Andersen on the shelf with a broken left hand, redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig made his first start at quarterback. The Bobcats managed just one first down in the first half and six overall, falling behind 24-0 at the break in what ended in a 45-14 loss.

The Missouri Valley produced five playoff teams a year ago, including Western Illinois and SDSU. The number of entrants into the 24-team bracket is a record since the field expanded, and the conference has produced six of the last seven national champions, with North Dakota State claiming every one of those crowns. But SDSU has defeated NDSU in consecutive years and is expected to contend for a final four bid for the third straight season.

Despite suffering the left-hand injury during action in the opener, Andersen led a brisk touchdown drive to open the second half, capped by the 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pounder’s explosive 16-yard touchdown run. That scoring drive tied the score at 13 despite Western Illinois’ domination of the first 30 minutes of action.

By the time the final whistle blew, Andersen had completed 12 of 17 passes in the second half after not completing a single pass in the first half. He connected on five straight passes during MSU’s 81-yard march that took less than 3 minutes to begin the second half.

After he settled in, the former multi-sport state champion from Dillon used his raw speed and pure power to punish Leatherneck defenders in the quarterback run game. He finished the evening with 24 carries for 145 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown burst to tie the game at 20 late in the third quarter.

Montana State kicker Tristian Bailey (23) kicks a 35-yard field goal to give MSU its final lead against Western Illinois on Aug. 30.

“He’s a very talented, very talented young man,” WIU first-year head coach Ryan Elliott said of Andersen. “He runs the ball with authority. You can tell he’s a very gifted athlete, tough, physical. Guys like that are hard to contain.”

With Andersen available only to play sparingly at running back and linebacker—the two positions he played in earning Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year honors last fall—the MSU offense struggled to sustain drives as South Dakota State imposed its will.

The Jackrabbits kicked off their 2018 season with a stellar debut from senior quarterback Taryn Christion. The All-American surpassed 10,000 yards of total offense for his career by throwing for 317 yards and four touchdowns. Wide receiver Cade Johnson caught all four of the scores, tying an SDSU school record.

On the other side of the ball, Montana State’s two touchdowns came in the third quarter as Rovig opened up the offense, completing a 42-yard pass to Willie Patterson and a 33-yard toss to Kevin Kassis to set up Maleek Barkley’s short touchdown run. Rovig’s 40-yard strike to Kassis on the next possession set up Rovig’s first career touchdown pass, a 6-yard toss to Bozeman product Lance McCutcheon.

“It was going to take a very clean game for us to have a chance to win this game given some of the circumstances,” Choate said. “That was probably the most disappointing thing. We played so clean in game one, and gave ourselves opportunities to win that game. Here, it was almost the exact opposite.”

Montana State hosts Wagner of the Northeast Conference on Sept. 15 before opening Big Sky Conference play at Portland State on Sept. 22.

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer at Skyline Sports, an online news gathering organization providing comprehensive coverage of Montana State and Big Sky Conference athletics at skylinesportsmt.com.