By Colter Nuanez EBS Contributor
The Montana State Bobcats have a brand new identity.
Following nine mostly successful seasons highlighted by four playoff appearances and three Big Sky Conference championships but an inability to consistently beat the rival Montana Grizzlies, MSU fired head coach Rob Ash less than 48 hours after his seventh loss to UM in nine seasons. The Grizzlies’ 54-35 win over MSU in Bozeman last November stamped the first losing season for the Bobcats since 2001.
Enter Jeff Choate, the new face of the Bobcats. After being hired as MSU’s 32nd head football coach in December, Choate assembled a star-studded coaching staff that included stealing defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak from the Grizzlies and luring former NFL safety Gerald Alexander to Bozeman to coach defensive backs.Choate took over nine months ago and had the entire off-season schedule—from winter conditioning and spring drills to summer workouts and fall camp in August—to reinvigorate the Bobcats with toughness and a competitive spirit. Two games into the 2016 season the returns, at least in regards to revamping the Bobcats’ much-beleaguered defense, are strong.
In their Sept. 1 opener, the Bobcats went toe-to-toe with the Idaho Vandals in Moscow. Against the Football Bowl Subdivision foe— Idaho has 85 full scholarships to Montana State’s 63— the Bobcats gave up 20 first-quarter points before buckling down the rest of the way. MSU pitched a shutout for the final three quarters but its offense sputtered after Chad Newell’s touchdown on the first possession of the third quarter, the final score by either side. In the end, Montana State fell 20-17 to open the Choate era.
Still, the defensive improvements were promising. MSU gave up just 128 passing yards a season after giving up more passing touchdowns than any team in the Big Sky Conference. While the offense isn’t nearly as explosive— MSU led the league and ranked third nationally by averaging 42 points per game behind electric dual-threat quarterback Dakota Prukop, who transferred to Oregon in the off-season— the defense showed a new toughness and ability to tackle in space.
“Everything we did in the off-season, we had a purpose behind it,” said MSU linebackers coach Kane Ioane, a Bobcat as a player or a coach since 2000. “Every time we ran extra after practice, every time we did extra conditioning after weight training, any extra component we added to practice … [gave] our guys adversity all the time.”
In Choate’s home debut against Bryant University on Sept. 10, the Bobcat defense again shined. John Walker, a graduate transfer cornerback from Colorado, intercepted passes in the Bulldog end zone in both the first and second half, including an interception with less than five minutes to play to help the Bobcats seal a 27-24 win, the first of Choate’s career as a college head coach.“We are going to mature game by game,” Choate said following his first win. “Our offense knows we don’t have to go out and score every possession. Do we have to improve? Heck yeah we have to improve. We have to take some pressure off our defense … We will rise as a team and we will fall as a team.”
The Bobcat defense forced five turnovers against Bryant, including three interceptions. Bryson McCabe added a pick in the third quarter that he returned inside the 2-yard line to set up a short Nick LaSane touchdown. Last season, Montana State registered just three interceptions the entire season.
“It’s awesome to be leaned on,” McCabe, a junior captain, said following the win. “If the game comes down to us, that’s why we play football.”
Montana State plays twice more at home in September. The Bobcats host Division II Western Oregon on Saturday, Sept. 17, to wrap up the non-conference portion of their schedule. MSU hosts North Dakota for homecoming to open up Big Sky Conference play on Sept. 24.