By Colter Nuanez EBS Contributor
The rebuilding process has been more emotionally excruciating than most of the Montana State Bobcats expected.
On Oct. 8, in front of a sold out crowd at Bobcat Stadium, Montana State lost for the third straight time to begin conference play. MSU’s 20-14 loss to Northern Arizona pushed the Bobcats to 0-3 in the Big Sky Conference for the first time since 2001.
The Bobcats are 2-4 overall in Jeff Choate’s first season as head coach, and the losses have all come in heartbreaking fashion.
“This is a feeling we have had too much this year, honestly,” said MSU senior captain running back Chad Newell, after rushing for 68 yards against NAU. He also scored his 29th career touchdown, tying Don Hass for second on MSU’s all-time list.
“At the end of the day, the newspaper title reads ‘Bobcats beat Bobcats’ again,” Newell said. “That’s a thing we have to eliminate.”
Montana State had a chance to tie the game in the waning minutes of a 17-15 loss to North Dakota at home Sept. 24, only to see Newell get stuffed at the goal line to deny MSU an opportunity at its first Big Sky victory.
On Oct. 1 in Sacramento, true freshman quarterback Chris Murray staked the Bobcats to a 38-21 lead by ripping off three touchdown runs, including sprints of 59 and 58 yards.
But Montana State’s defense collapsed late under its own fatigue, as the Hornets piled up 20 unanswered fourth quarter points. Nate Ketteringham’s 15-yard touchdown pass to Jaelin Ratliff with 15 seconds left boosted previously winless Sacramento State to its first victory of the season, 41-38.
Against NAU, Montana State dug itself a 20-0 hole as the offense sputtered for the first two and a half quarters. Junior quarterback Tyler Bruggman completed just three of his 10 passes and MSU managed just 94 yards on its first 36 plays.
Choate and his staff pulled Bruggman in favor of Murray, who promptly led MSU on two touchdown drives. The first was sparked by Jayshawn Gates’ 32-yard run on a wide receiver jet sweep play and capped by Newell’s touchdown.
The second scoring drive featured Gunnar Brekke’s 28-yard burst and was finished by Murray’s 13-yard scoring scamper.
Montana State assumed possession with 1:46 left in the game. Murray converted two first downs with strikes to fellow freshman Kevin Kassis to get the ball to midfield. But with less than 20 seconds to play, menacing NAU defensive end Siupeli Anua came off the edge, smashed Murray from behind and forced a fumble that NAU recovered to seal the Lumberjacks’ 20-14 win.
“It’s a fickle game, man,” a discouraged Choate said following the loss. “I feel like these guys have done everything we’ve asked them to do. I hurt for them.
“I know this: it’s going to turn,” he added. “It’s the nature of this game if we stay the course. If we build something the right way with the same foundation and discipline, we will have a really, really good football team here.”
Montana State’s four losses have come by a combined 14 points. The Bobcats had the ball with a chance to tie or win the game against Idaho, North Dakota, Sacramento State and NAU. All four times, the Bobcats came up just short.
“I feel like we are definitely going to come back from it,” said Montana State senior cornerback John Walker, after the NAU loss. “We have to have a short memory in this game.”
Montana State guns for its first Big Sky win Saturday, Oct. 15 in Ogden, Utah, against surging Weber State (2-0, 3-2).
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.