By Colter Nuanez EBS Contributor
The tables turned on Montana State during the Bobcats’ homecoming Sept. 24.
In Jeff Choate’s first season at the helm, the Montana State football team surged to two straight hard-fought wins at Bobcat Stadium to finish the non-conference schedule 2-1. Montana State forced five turnovers in each of its first two wins under Choate, hanging on for a 27-24 win over Bryant a week before destroying Division II Western Oregon, 55-0.
The chilly, windy homecoming doubled as the 40th anniversary of Montana State’s 1976 national championship team, the 60th anniversary for the ’56 squad, and the unveiling of a 10-foot tall statue dedicated to Sonny Holland. But MSU found itself on the wrong end of a turnover barrage.
The Bobcats dictated the tempo and physicality of the game, but committed five turnovers—including three interceptions by junior quarterback Tyler Bruggman in crucial moments—and fell to North Dakota 17-15 in front of a sellout crowd.
Choate told his offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham before the game that if senior captain running back Chad Newell rushed for 100 yards, MSU would defeat North Dakota. Choate told defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak if his defense could corral UND star running back John Santiago, the Bobcats would have the upper hand against the Fighting Hawks.
Senior captain linebacker Fletcher Collins set the tone on the opening defensive series by stripping Santiago, and Newell ripped off a 16-yard carry on his first touch after missing two games with an injured hand. Montana State dictated the action for most of their Big Sky Conference opener, and the afternoon played out almost exactly how Choate expected.
Montana State’s head coach did not expect, however, that his Bobcats would commit five turnovers and force just one after entering the game leading the country in turnover margin. MSU had forced 12 turnovers and committed just one in winning two of its first three games under Choate.
“I felt like Saturday was an opportunity for us, early in this process, to have a defining moment,” Choate said during his weekly press conference Sept. 26. “To beat a good team at home—because it’s really hard to win on the road in this league—I felt it was a squandered opportunity and I felt that everyone in that locker room after the game felt the same way I did.
Bruggman threw an interception in the first quarter and two more in the fourth. Newell rushed for exactly 100 yards, but his second-quarter fumble set up the first of two Brady Oliveira touchdowns for UND and Newell’s stuffed two-point conversion dive late in the fourth quarter gave the visitors a two-point win.
North Dakota led 10-9 with 2:27 to play when Oliveira ripped off a 60-yard touchdown run to put UND up eight. On Montana State’s next possession, Bruggman hit Kevin Kassis for a 55-yard gain to the UND 3-yard line and two plays later, Newell plunged in for his 23rd career rushing touchdown. But UND safety Cole Reyes stood him up on the two-point conversion.
MSU recovered the ensuing onside kick only to see Bruggman throw his third and final interception with 1:04 left as MSU lost its Big Sky Conference opener.
Montana State plays at Sacramento State in their first conference road game of the season, at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 1. The Bobcats return home to host Northern Arizona at 5 p.m. on Oct. 8.
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.