By Colter Nuanez EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – The Bobcats were licking their wounds after one of the most lopsided losses of the Jeff Choate era, searching for answers with Big Sky Conference play quickly approaching.
On the heels of a gritty 26-23 victory over Western Illinois, a 2017 playoff qualifier to open the season, Montana State went to No. 3 South Dakota State brimming with optimism. A season ago, MSU took the eventual Football Championship Subdivision semifinalist down to the wire in a 31-27 loss in Bozeman. An improved Bobcat team figured to have a shot at an upset this year.
Instead, Montana State mustered just one first-half first down and moved the sticks just six times overall. MSU rushed for just 29 yards, the first time in 24 games with Choate as the head coach that Montana State did not surpass 100 yards on the ground as a team. The end result: a 45-14 loss in Brookings that left the Bobcats searching for answers.
With a home game Sept. 15 against Wagner as the bridge between the non-conference and Big Sky Conference play, Montana State elected to get back to basics.
Quarterback Troy Andersen, the do-everything sophomore who earned Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors as a running back and linebacker in 2017, remained on the shelf with a left-hand injury for MSU’s game against Wagner. The Bobcat coaching staff elected to fully prepare redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig as the starter. And Montana State returned to the bruising, physical offensive style that has trademarked Choate’s tenure thus far.
Behind the breakout performance of true freshman running back Isaiah Ifanse and the powerful play of a rapidly improving offensive line, MSU rushed for 246 yards against the visiting Seahawks. Ifanse’s 146 yards included a 77-yard touchdown run that opened up the offense, in turn allowing Rovig to throw for 310 yards and three touchdowns as the Bobcats exploded for a 47-24 victory in front of a sellout crowd.
MSU opened conference play Sept. 22 on the road at Portland State, and Montana State didn’t waver with Andersen’s return under center. The offensive line continued to blast holes, Ifanse sustained his reputation as one of the most talented freshmen in the country and Andersen had a day for the ages as the Bobcats opened up Big Sky play.
Montana State rushed for a season-high 323 yards and controlled the game from start to finish on the way to a 43-23 victory in the City of Roses. The win moves MSU to 1-0 in conference and 3-1 overall.
“The biggest factor after the SDSU game was us to put the offensive line in a position to be successful: roll off the ball, do our DNA stuff,” Choate said. “That’s what I told our offensive staff. I built a cut up of ‘here’s who we are.’ We watched it from the first two games and we were losing our DNA. We decided to get back to being who we are. I think once we did that, our [offensive] line loved it. They like rolling off the ball and it opens up so many other things for our offense.”
In Portland, Andersen ran a throwback version of the single-wing offense out of the shotgun, executing quarterback power, counter and sweep to perfection on the way to 211 rushing yards. He also caught a 32-yard pass from Rovig and threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Kassis on a day in which all of his prodigious tools were on display.
“The offensive line has had a physical mindset,” Andersen said. “After South Dakota State, it was hard on us all and we all took it personal. Coach really challenged those guys up front to come out with better intensity and better focus and these last two weeks, they definitely have.”
Andersen’s rushing total marks the second-highest in Big Sky Conference history in a single game by a quarterback. Cal Poly’s Chris Brown rushed for 224 yards in a 41-21 win over Montana in 2014.
“You don’t think about it during a game, but afterward, you are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I guess I do remember him running a lot that game,” MSU sophomore right guard Lewis Kidd said. “It’s awesome to play with a guy like that. He’s a great leader, great athlete. His level of play steps up ours.”
Montana State’s stoutest conference test comes Sept. 29 with visiting Eastern Washington in town. The Eagles are the No. 5 team in the country and are coming off a 70-17 win over Cal Poly in their conference opener. MSU has a bye the first weekend of October.
Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer at Skyline Sports, an online news-gathering organization providing comprehensive coverage of Montana State and Big Sky Conference athletics at skylinesportsmt.com.