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Bobcats to open conference play with plethora of unanswered questions

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Sophomore quarterback Tommy Mellott takes aim downfield in MSU’s season opener against McNeese State. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

By Colter Nuanez SKYLINE SPORTS

BOZEMAN – How do you replace this player and that player? It’s one of the most intriguing and fun parts of following any given college football program.

Talented players come and talented players go. No program is immune to transition.

But very few, if any, football programs in the history of the Big Sky Conference have ever had to replace Troy Andersen.

As Montana State is set to begin Big Sky Conference play on Saturday Sept. 24 at No. 15 Eastern Washington, the Bobcats remain a complete unknown.

Following last season’s run to the FCS national championship game—MSU’s first run to the title tilt since 1984—scuttle filled the narrative surrounding one of the most consistently competitive small school football programs in the nation.

How would head coach Brent Vigen handle his second season at the helm? Could he recreate the magic that helped him architect three consecutive national championships while offensive coordinator at North Dakota State University from 2011 to 2013?

What could quarterback Tommy Mellott possibly do for an encore? The hard-nosed, cerebral signal caller from Butte, America took the FCS by storm last season, making his first college start in the postseason after Matt McKay left the Bobcats high and dry following a 29-10 whooping handed down by archrival University of Montana. Mellott looked like the second coming of Russell Wilson in leading MSU to three straight playoff wins, including a 41-19 win at defending national champion Sam Houston State that marked MSU’s first-ever road postseason victory. But was the magical playoff run simply a matter of catching lightning in a bottle?

More than any of those questions though, the Bobcats were and are faced with replacing the most talented senior class in school history. Andersen—a Dillon, Montana product who attained mythical status for earning All-American honors at running back, quarterback, outside linebacker and inside linebacker—is impossible to replace. He is one of the great talents in the history of Montana State or the Big Sky Conference, a superb athlete a 4.42-second time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine last spring. Those wheels plus his position versatility and seemingly unlimited upside made him a second-round draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons.

And that’s only part of the departing standouts. Daniel Hardy blossomed into one of the best pass rushers in program history during his lone year as a starter, developing so rapidly he too had his name called in the NFL Draft. Lance McCutcheon, a Bozeman product, joined Hardy in making the active roster for the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. And Lewis Kidd, a four-year starter and two-time All-American offensive lineman, also made the New Orleans Saints’ active roster.

That’s not to mention Tre Webb, an All-Big Sky safety last fall. Or defensive tackle Chase Benson or defensive end Amandre Williams, each All-Americans during the Bobcat careers.

The reason MSU remains an unknown despite playing three games so far this season is the Bobcats are yet to play a like opponent. McNeese State came to Bozeman to open the season as a once-proud program ravaged by a pandemic, two hurricanes and the general unrest that has marked college football in the 21st century. A total of 59 new players on the Cowboys’ roster participated in a 40-17 MSU victory.

The following week, Morehead State, a school from rural Eastern Kentucky that does not offer football scholarships, came to Bozeman, collected a game check and received a 63-13 drubbing by the No. 4 Bobcats.

And the non-conference wrapped last week in Portland as Montana State was the one on the receiving end of a payday. But is $675,000 worth giving up 68 points in a 40-point loss to Oregon State? The OSU point total marked the second-most Montana State has allowed since World War II.

Mellott has shown flashes but also has come back down to earth. The offensive line might shock the world and be better overall as a unit, but that remains to be seen. Veteran players like inside linebacker Callahan O’Reilly, nickelback Ty Okada and free safety Jeffrey Manning Jr. are still adjusting to life without their talented and inspiring former teammates. And MSU is still trying to find a semblance of a traditional running back with All-American Isaiah Ifanse (and seemingly all his backups) on the shelf.

The Bobcats are among the favorites to compete for their first Big Sky Conference title since 2012. MSU’s first win in Cheney since 2012 came last season and proved to be a determining factor in the Bobcats earning a playoff seed and a first-round bye. The process of answering the plethora of questions accompanying Montana State in the midst of Vigen’s second season begins Saturday at the Inferno.

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