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Bobcats enter bye in prime position with No. 2 national ranking  

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Senior quarterback Sean Chambers has led Montana State to back to back Big Sky Conference victories with Tommy Mellott on the shelf, accounting for eight total touchdowns in those two starts. PHOTO BY BROOKS NUANEZ / SKYLINE SPORTS

By Colter Nuanez SKYLINE SPORTS 

BOZEMAN—The Montana State University Bobcats put the disappointment of missed opportunities on Sept. 9 against the defending national champions in the rearview quickly, showing flashes of dominance to enter their bye week in perfect position.  

Montana State went to Brookings, S.D. the second week of the regular season to take on the defending national champions in South Dakota State University. The Jackrabbits ended MSU’s season in convincing fashion in 2022, putting the Bobcat offense on skates on the icy, slick field at Dana K. Dykhouse Stadium in a lopsided 39-18 victory that booked SDSU’s ticket to the FCS national championship game.  

About 10 months later, Montana State had multiple chances to spring an upset in the Week 2 matchup between two of the top teams in the country. The Bobcats blocked a punt right at the Jackrabbits’ goal line but failed to convert the ensuing possession into a touchdown. MSU also had a fourth down and goal from the SDSU 1-yard line but committed a pair of false start penalties, two of nine false starts and 12 total penalties on the evening for the Bobcats.  

Despite pitching a first half shutout and holding SDSU to just 20 points—the Jackrabbits have only been held to 20 or fewer points three times over the last three-plus seasons with stellar quarterback Mark Gronowski at the helm—Montana State walked away on the losing end.  

The 20-16 loss could’ve festered and altered the supreme confidence of a Bobcat crew that has been to the Final Four of the FCS Playoffs three seasons in a row. Instead, Montana State proved once again it can refocus sharply. After dominant wins over Stetson (57-20), No. 9 Weber State (40-0) and upstart Portland State (38-22) on the final Saturday of September, the Bobcats enter their 2023 bye week right where they hoped to be. 

Running back Julius Davis, a former Wisconsin transfer, has been one of Montana State’s most impactful players through the first half of the season. PHOTO BY BROOKS NUANEZ / SKYLINE SPORTS

“We took a good shot from Portland State, we prevailed and now we move on,” Montana State head coach Brent Vigen said after the Bobcat’s homecoming win on Sept. 30. “This was good for us.” 

MSU’s win over Portland State moved the Bobcats to 2-0 in Big Sky Conference play, 4-1 overall. Montana State has won 10 straight Big Sky games and now hold a program-record 23-game winning streak at home.  

“We are in a position with our success that we are going to get everybody’s best shot and that’s the reality of it,” Vigen said. “You can tell your guys that all week, they have good players, we are going to get everybody’s best shot, but ultimately until things start happening and the game unfolds, you don’t know how it’s going to play out.  

“Every game is its own game and every game is not going to be perfect. Every game is not going to go exactly how you want it to. How are you going to respond when things go well and when things don’t go your way, that’s what we have to be about. Forward thinking. That’s what we are doing well right now. 

“Today [after the Portland State win], we took their best shot, we got a win and now we enter our bye week in a good spot,” Vigen said in the post-game press conference. 

Vigen’s impact 

The sum of Vigen’s accomplishments during his two and a half seasons guiding Montana State are already impressive. The SDSU loss was only MSU’s second regular-season loss to an FCS team under Vigen’s guidance—the other was a 29-10 loss at the University of Montana in Missoula in the 2021 rivalry game, Vigen’s first taste of the bitter clash.  

Montana State has only lost six of 34 total games with Vigen as the head coach. Two of those losses came to FBS programs Wyoming and Oregon State. One was the rivalry game in Missoula and another was this season, theWeek 2 loss against SDSU. The other two came in the postseason: 38-10 to North Dakota State Univesity in the 2021 national championship game and the playoff loss in Brookings last year.  

Montana State head coach Brent Vigen is 28-6 in his time leading the Bobcats. PHOTO BY BROOKS NUANEZ / SKYLINE SPORTS

While Vigen and company have proven they will find ways to win against pretty much every other FCS team on their schedule, the question remains: how do the Bobcats close to gap between themselves, NDSU and SDSU? The Bison have played in 10 of the last 12 national title games and boast nine national championships. The Jackrabbits played for the spring national title in 2021, won the crown last fall and have advanced to the FCS semifinals five times in six years.  

MSU has certainly established itself as the definitive third-best program in the country. And after NDSU lost 24-19 to the University of South Dakota Coyotes in Fargo, North Dakota to end September, MSU enters October with a No. 2 national ranking.  

The Bobcats have done it with a bruising run game that is averaging 325 yards per game, a full 45 yards more than any other team in the country.  

Montana State’s much-improved defense is allowing 15 points per game. The shutout against Weber State University was Montana State’s first against a Big Sky opponent since 2006. And the Bobcats have rolled up 14 sacks, which ranks ninth in the country.  

Perhaps the most impressive part of the first half of Montana State’s 2023 campaign has been MSU’s ability to navigate unavailability.  

Sidelined stars 

Lonyatta Alexander Jr., a former 4-star recruit who spent time at Arizona State University and University of Washington before transferring to MSU, was expected to be Montana State’s top receiving option. The NCAA denied his transfer waiver, rendering him ineligible this season.  

Tommy Mellott, a junior captain and one of the faces of the Bobcat program, was knocked out with a leg injury in the third quarter against SDSU and has not played since.  

J.T. Reed, a second-team All-Big Sky offensive lineman last season and a preseason all-conference pick before this year, has yet to play in a game.  

Senior running back Lane Sumner started MSU’s first game against Utah Tech, but suffered an ankle injury four plays in. He’s been on the shelf ever since.  

Ty McCullouch, a Colorado State transfer Vigen called the fastest players on the team, missed the first four games of the season with an injury. Other elite players that have seen playing time impacted by health issues include all-conference junior cornerback Simeon Woodard, slot receiver and all-conference punt returner Taco Dowler, and his twin brother Caden Dowler, MSU’s starting nickelback until tearing his knee.  

None of it has impacted winning. It’s all part of the steady focus and steadfast attitude Vigen instills in his players.  

“I think we are capable of playing the brand of football we want to and that’s playing fast, that’s being physical,” Vigen said. “That’s what we have wanted to be about. Each week provides its own test.  
 
“Each day, you develop more character and I think we have more character right now. There’s a relative confidence within this team that helps us trust one another and believe we are going to find a way.” 

No. 2 Montana State hosts California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) on Oct. 14 coming off of a bye week.  

Receiver Marqui Johnson and the Bobcats offense. PHOTO BY AMANDA FUNK

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