By Colter Nuanez SKYLINE SPORTS
BOZEMAN—The narrative around the Montana State football program has shifted each of the past four offseasons as MSU has risen to base camp attempting to summit the Football Championship Subdivision’s version of Everest—national powerhouse programs at North Dakota State and South Dakota State universities.
In 2019, Montana State made its first run to the FCS semifinals since 1984. That 2019 season ended in the Fargo Dome, home of the North Dakota State Bison, the Everest-esque juggernaut of the small-school Division I football.
The following season, one filled with rich expectations, was called off because of the global pandemic.
After the cancellation, impassioned head coach Jeff Choate got restless, first nearly nabbing the head coach position at Boise State before ultimately taking a job on Steve Sarkisian’s staff at the University of Texas.
Entering 2021, how would Brent Vigen replace Jeff Choate? It was the omnipresent question, with much of the worry among MSU faithful steeped in whether Vigen could beat the Grizzlies, something Choate did better than any Bobcat head coach since Sonny Holland.
When Vigen’s first rivalry game against the archrival Griz ended in a 29-10 beat down by the hosts in Missoula, the longing for Choate resurfaced.
Then Vigen shocked the world by inserting a freshman quarterback from Butte, America into the starting lineup. Tommy Mellott took the 2021 FCS Playoffs by storm, helping MSU post the biggest playoff road upset in school and Big Sky Conference history when the Bobcats knocked out No. 1 ranked—and reigning national champion—Sam Houston State.
MSU’s run was sparked by one of the most talented senior classes in school history. So entering last year, the new narrative became: how do the Bobcats replace Troy Andersen and company?
No Troy, no problem. Montana State went undefeated in Big Sky Conference play to win its first league title in a decade. The Bobcats won 12 games, tying a school record. Yet MSU saw its season end in abrupt, startling fashion for the third year in a row. Montana State lost 42-14 in Fargo in 2019. The ‘Cats fell 38-10 to NDSU in Frisco, Texas in the2021 national title game. MSU’s semifinal appearance last year, a program-record third straight, ended with a 38-19 loss to eventual national champion South Dakota State.
Fast start to 2023
Internal chatter about getting bigger, faster and stronger dominated the offseason. Junior defensive end Brody Grebe said he thought about the SDSU loss every day over the last nine months. MSU senior quarterback Sean Chambers said he can remember the exact time of day Montana State walked off the field in Brookings, South Dakota.
It appears that mentality motivated Montana State in the offseason, at least if the Bobcats’ 63-20 drubbing of Utah Tech on Sept. 2 is any indication.
Montana State’s revamped offensive line—All-American left tackle Rush Reimer is now playing left guard with the sudden and rapid development of 6-foot-5, 308-pound redshirt freshman Conner Moore—looked just as athletic as the unit that helped Montana State lead the FCS in rushing yards per game last season. And the unit is significantly bigger even with All-Big Sky guard J.T. Reed not dressing out during MSU’s annual Gold Rush home opener.
The Bobcats averaged 7.7 yards per carry, rushing for 407 yards on 53 carries overall to affirm their place as the third-ranked team in the FCS.
“I think we had a good group,” Vigen said following his team’s 21st consecutive home win, a program record which moved Vigen to 25-5 at the helm one game into his third season at MSU.
“I’m certain our offensive line did some really good things today with some guys in some different spots. I thought we communicated well and I thought [first-year offensive line coach Al] Johnson has done a great job of laying down his thoughts, his philosophy.
“Offensively, that’s where it starts for us and I don’t think there’s any secret about that.”
A crowd of 21,967, the second-most in Bobcat Stadium history, watched Montana State bulldoze the Trailblazers in the 2023 opener. Senior running back Lane Sumner suffered a lower leg injury three plays into the game, but the Montana State run game didn’t skip a beat.
Julius Davis, a former 4-star recruit who transferred to MSU from Wisconsin, scored his first touchdown as a Bobcat. Jared White, a redshirt freshman who snapped his leg on the first carry of his second college game last year, scored a 79-yard touchdown as MSU tried to salt the game away.
And Scottre Humphrey made MSU faithful forget about the former No. 22, Isaiah Ifanse, who’s now a Cal Golden Bear. Humphrey, who like Ifanse hails from Seattle, rushed for 114 yards and scored three touchdowns to earn FCS National Player of the Week.
“It’s evident they (Davis and Humphrey) can go,” Vigen said. “They are both powerful guys. They can break things open and they are hard to tackle. They will compliment each other.”
After a resounding season-opener, Montana State’s attention now turns back to Everest. The defending national champions await next weekend, when the Bobcats return to Brookings, S.D.
No. 3 MSU at No. 1 South Dakota State kicks off at 5 p.m., Sept. 9 at Dana Dykehouse Stadium.
“We have a recent history of the game and we each have a game under our belts [as wins],” Vigen said—his team beat SDSU 31-17 to advance to the national title game two years ago. “You can go back and to some degree, dust off what you really liked in that game in December. And you look at the game where we didn’t play so well.
“Our guys are going to be ready to play, I can promise you that.”
Colter and Brooks Nuanez are the Co-Founders of Skyline Sports. The Nuanez Brothers have operated skylinesportsmt.com since 2014. Colter has covered the Big Sky Conference since 2006. He can be reached at Colter.Nuanez@gmail.com.