Editor’s note: The MSU Bobcats beat Fort Lewis College at home, 45-14, for their first game of the season on Sept. 3.
By Colter Nuanez EBS Contributor
If an off-season full of promising change can come to fruition, the Montana State University Bobcats look primed to make a run at a national championship that’s eluded them for more than three decades.
Change was not a defining factor for the Bobcat offense that returns fully loaded after setting a school record for season points in 2014. But the Bobcat defense couldn’t capitalize on the fact that quarterback Dakota Prukop and his arsenal of weapons were lighting up scoreboards across the West. A season ago, MSU scored more than 40 points on seven different occasions. The Bobcats lost two of those games, both at home and against key opponents.
The final loss was a heartbreaking 47-41 defeat to South Dakota State University, in a driving Bozeman snowstorm during the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last December. The defeat was the final straw.
In the off-season, head coach Rob Ash put longtime assistant Kane Ioane in charge of the defense. The Bobcat Hall of Fame player has coached linebackers for a decade and will now call the plays as MSU’s defensive coordinator. Former standout players Michael Rider and Jody Owens joined the staff as well, coaching cornerbacks and linebackers, respectively.
On the field, the Bobcats brought in seven transfers to bolster a unit searching for nine new starters. The group has worked with a slew of returning Bobcats as they try to master Ioane’s multi-faceted, aggressive scheme.
Despite an off-season of change, the arsenal of weapons on the other side of the ball has the bar set high. The Big Sky Conference coaches named MSU the favorite to win the league, and the Bobcats were one vote away from being the favorite in the media poll.
“I don’t know what everyone else thinks, but we expect to not lose a game and go all the way,” said MSU senior captain defensive tackle Taylor Sheridan. “That adds pressure but at the same time I think we have the team to do it and that takes the pressure away.”
Sheridan will anchor a defensive line that includes senior tackles Connor Thomas and Nate Bignell. The linebacker unit had to replace five seniors, including All-American Alex Singleton now with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. But Grant Collins, a redshirt freshman from Bozeman, and Mac Bignell, Nate’s sophomore brother, look primed to step up.
In the backfield, senior cornerbacks Bryson Keeton and Trace Timmer look to fill the void left by the graduation of first-team All-Big Sky pick Deonte Flowers. At safety, University of Alabama-Birmingham transfer Des Carter seems to have emerged as a leader.
Much of the optimism stems from Prukop, an electric dual-threat quarterback who was a Walter Payton Award semifinalist in his first year under center last fall. Despite suffering a knee injury 10 games into the season, Prukop still totaled 3,525 yards of total offense and accounted for 31 Bobcat touchdowns, including 13 rushing scores to go with his nearly 1,000 yards on the ground.
Prukop is bolstered by the return of seven players who caught at least 10 passes last season, including senior captain slot receiver Mitch Griebel. Mitch Herbert, Justin Paige and Jayshawn Gates combined to catch 10 touchdowns during breakout freshmen seasons.
The pass game adds 6-foot-6-inch tight end Beau Sandland – a University of Miami transfer – and speedy wide receiver Brandon Brown, a Baylor University transfer who played high school ball with Prukop in Austin, Texas. In the backfield, junior captain Chad Newell and junior big-play threat Gunnar Brekke will be the main weapons in MSU’s spread option offensive attack.
“Our goals are to win the Big Sky, beat the Griz, and win the national championship,” said Griebel, referring to MSU’s in-state rival the University of Montana Grizzlies. “The thing that has been missing is our swagger. We lost that for a couple of years. We thought it didn’t take as much hard work as it did to win the Big Sky and I think we are back on track.”
Colter Nuanez is the creative director and senior writer for “Skyline Sports” (skylinesportsmt.com), an online newsgathering organization providing cutting edge coverage of Montana State University and Big Sky Conference sports. The award-winning sportswriter has worked for newspapers and magazines across the West and has covered the Big Sky since 2006.