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Battering ram: MSU runs over Weber, into quarterfinals

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By Colter Nuanez SKYLINE SPORTS

BOZEMAN—Even with a comeback underway, Montana State never flinched.

It seems tried and true now that we are into December: Through any and every rally, no one can stop this Bobcat rushing attack. These Bobcats are looking like a runaway freight train that will be a problem to stifle.

Weber State became the latest victim at Bobcat Stadium—for the second time in 42 days. The Wildcats overcame the demons of a bizarre 43-38 loss on Oct. 22 to hang until this second round FCS Playoff game.

Behind an inspired second-half effort from backup quarterback Kylan Weisser—standout sophomore QB Bronson Barron had been knocked out of the game at this point—the Wildcats almost overcame a third quarter avalanche. Instead, they rallied and took MSU down to the wire for the second time this year.

Defensive back Ty Okada twice sacked starting Weber State quarterback Bronson Barron during the game. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

But even though the visitors cut the deficit to eight late in the fourth, MSU transfer quarterback Sean Chambers lined up in the shotgun and set collective minds at ease by eliminating the rest of the clock with authority.

Chambers ran the ball eight times in nine plays — Butt native and sophomore phenom Tommy Mellott chipped in a 10-yard burst of his own — and gained 56 yards as Montana State drained the final four minutes, 46 seconds off the clock to secure a 33-25 victory to move on to the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs.

“That’s the way we have to do it,” Montana State second-year head coach Brent Vigen said after his MSU-record fourth career playoff win—due in no small part to his team possessing the football for 38 minutes, 18 seconds and rolling up 18 first downs.

“We have guys who can run it and we can make defenses really stressed as far as how they are going to defend us,” Vigen said.

The final Bobcat possession was a reinforcement of the entire football game and, by and large, what has been a remarkable, record-setting season for Montana State. The Bobcats now have 11 wins—nine consecutive—thanks to a rushing attack that continues to impose its will.

Following Montana State’s 55-21 win over rival Montana here on Nov. 19 the last time out for the Bobcats, Griz head coach Bobby Hauck sullenly admitted “we know they are going to run the ball, they know they are going to run the ball and we couldn’t stop it.”

That sentence succinctly might sum up the feelings of almost all of Montana State’s foes so far in 2022. Against the Wildcats’ normally stout defense, MSU rolled up 110 rushing yards in the first quarter. They had 194 yards in the first half.

By the end of the third quarter, MSU had 275 yards rushing. By the end of the game, MSU had piled up 388 rushing yards on 53 head-spinning carries.

“Tough game and we knew it would be,” Weber State ninth-year head coach Jay Hill said after his team finished its season 10-3, two of the losses coming in Bozeman. “Give Montana State a ton of credit. They ran the ball even when everybody in the stadium knew they were going to run it. We knew they were going to run it. And still, they ran it.”        

Montana State set its single-season rushing record as a team after it surpassed 300 yards rushing in a single game for the seventh time this season.

“To break the season record, that’s a good accomplishment, for sure,” Vigen said. “It’s a product of how we have to play and the success we consistently have had. That’s how you break records; you do things well week in and week out.”

Senior running back Isaiah Ifanse ran for 91 yards in his season debut. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

The Bobcats have run the ball with variety, explosiveness, deception and power all season. An athletic, young offensive line playing with a chip on its shoulder has been the orchestra, with second-year offensive coordinator Taylor Housewright playing the role of maestro.

Mellott ultimately finished with 158 rushing yards on 22 carries to move over 1,000 yards in his sophomore season. The Butte native, along with Chambers—a mountain of a man who transferred from Wyoming last summer—have been the conductors.

MSU senior All-American tailback Isaiah Ifanse missed MSU’s first 11 games of the year but returned on Saturday with a bang, rushing for 91 yards on 10 carries. MSU’s single season rushing record holder showed great speed to go along with his elite low center of gravity and ability to break tackles, although he did fumble twice. Montana State did not lose either.

Even without Ifanse—or the consistent appearance of Ifanse’s top two alternates—the Bobcats have run at opponents in waves. MSU had six players in the top 25 in rushing yards in the Big Sky Conference during the regular season as it powered its way to a first league title in 10 years.

When Mellott got knocked out for a few weeks, Chambers stepped in and won national player of the week honors by exploding for more than 400 total yards against UC Davis. When Chambers missed almost a month, Mellott took on a heavier load, piling up more than 100 rushing yards five times this season, including four times in the last five weeks.

And on Saturday, Montana State was able to play both quarterbacks, sometimes at the same time, against a Weber State defense that allowed 20.4 points per game this season, the second-best average in the Big Sky. Montana State beat that by two scores and piled up nearly three times the rushing yards WSU had allowed per game through 12 games.

“We did not handle the run game good,” Hill said. “We should’ve played it better than we did the first time and we didn’t.

“I hold myself most accountable. We should’ve had something better for the players to stop that run game. You have to give Montana State credit, they are very challenging.”

Barron and the Weber State offense played at a break-neck pace right out of the gates, crafting an 11-play drive that resulted in a 39-yard field goal by Kyle Thompson on the first possession of the game to take the initial upper hand.

MSU trailed 24-9 in the wild game against the Wildcats back in October after Mellott threw an early interception, Weber’s Hudson Schenck and Abraham Williams returned a punt and a kick for touchdowns, respectively, and MSU had a field goal blocked.

In Saturday’s playoff rematch, Montana State wasted no time getting back on the right side of the advantage. Mellott helped guide an eight-play, 75-yard drive that included just one pass and ate up 3:51.

A 2-yard touchdown plunge into the Sonny Holland end-zone by Chambers, his 19th of the season, ignited the 16,397 in attendance that braved temperatures that lingered in the teens and dipped into single digits by the end of the game.

Quarterback Sean Chambers provided a key boost to the Bobcats. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

The next four MSU possessions, the Bobcats entered the red-zone. But each push, while authoritative, finished with Blake Glessner field goals. The MSU sophomore hit four in a row Saturday to push his streak to 11 makes in a row before a 49-yard miss in the fourth quarter snapped it. That spurt was the second-best in MSU history, behind only Jason Cunningham’s 14 in a row in 2010.  

The Bobcat charge kept coming. Eventually, the dam broke. And when Chambers hit a wide-open Derryk Snell for a 28-yard touchdown and hit Willie Patterson for a 47-yard score to begin the fourth quarter, Montana State’s scoring streak reached prodigious status.

Patterson’s 9th touchdown during his all-league senior year capped a stretch in which MSU scored 29 times in 32 possessions. And two of those three scoreless possessions ended on game ending kneel downs against Cal Poly and Montana, respectively.

“I’m extremely proud of our offensive line for what they’ve done,” Mellott said after closing out his fourth playoff win as MSU’s starting quarterback, moving past fellow Butte, Montana native Paul Dennehy in the Bobcat record book. “There was a lot of doubt at the beginning of the year and they’ve held that well. We all knew they were going to dominate this year and that’s what they are doing. All the credit to those guys.

“We have a lot of guys on the offense that know how to make plays and they do it every Saturday.”

Montana State knocked out Barron late in the third quarter, giving way to Weisser, a similarly strong-armed quarterback with more mobility than Barron.

Two plays after Patterson’s touchdown, Jeffrey Manning Jr. tipped a Weisser pass and MSU linebacker Danny Uluilakepa intercepted it. The ensuing MSU possession resulted in Glessner’s missed 49-yard field goal.

A Donate McMillan 20-yard run set up a 31-yard touchdown strike from Weisser to Jon Christensen. Weber captain Ty MacPherson, who finished with team-highs of five catches for 59 yards and scored WSU’s first touchdown to tie the game at 10-10, caught a two-point conversion to put the gap at 33-18.

MSU went 3-and-out, leading to punter Bryce Leighton’s first appearance since MSU’s 41-38 win at Northern Arizona on November 5.

Weber State drove 69 yards in nine plays, highlighted by three sweet catches by MacPherson and an 8-yard touchdown by towering tight end Hayden Meacham to cut the MSU lead to a single score.

Even with the visitors surging, MSU did not falter. When Hill elected not to onside kick, Montana State made sure to not give the ball back to the Wildcats.

Montana State moves into the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs for the third fall season in a row. The fourth-seeded Bobcats will host fifth-seeded William & Mary, the champions of the Colonial Athletic Association and a 55-14 winner over Gardiner-Webb on Saturday.

“You are in the season mode, you have an opponent coming up, play them next weekend, whenever that’s going to be and we know who that is going to be so you dive into the prep starting tomorrow and you move forward,” Vigen said. “I think it’s a great thing that you have to stack these weeks up because it ultimately brings out a true champion. I think this team has the right makeup. Now we have to go take on another challenge.”

Fans celebrate the Bobcats playoff appearance. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

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