By Colter Nuanez EBS Contributor
The rebuilding process for the Montana State Bobcats is reaching rock bottom, but first-year head coach Jeff Choate is confident a climb from the basement of the Big Sky Conference is on the horizon.
MSU has one of the proudest traditions in the Big Sky Conference—the Bobcats have claimed three national championships, at three different levels of competition. Montana State’s 15 Big Sky crowns are the second most since the conference was created in 1963, trailing only Montana’s 18 titles.
The Bobcats have been a modern-day power as well. MSU has six Big Sky Conference titles since 2002, including three straight for the first time in school history to begin this decade. Montana State qualified for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs as recently as 2014, capping a string of four postseason berths in five seasons.
Last fall, MSU endured its first losing season since 2001. The 5-6 finish, coupled with the inability to consistently beat fellow Big Sky powers Montana and Eastern Washington, resulted in former head coach Rob Ash’s termination. He won 70 games in nine seasons at Montana State, but just two each against UM and EWU, in 18 total matchups.
The firing caused a domino effect that resonates today. A week after Choate was hired last December, most of Ash’s coaching staff, including prolific offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey, was let go. Choate only retained running backs coach Michael Pitre and linebackers coach Kane Ioane, an MSU Hall of Fame player.
Choate hired a star-studded defensive coaching staff to work with Ioane, including longtime Grizzly defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak, and Gerald Alexander—a former NFL defensive back who previously coached at his alma mater Boise State.
But injuries, a lack of offensive production and a lineup that has included eight different freshmen, have ensured Montana State will take its lumps in Choate’s first fall navigating the Big Sky.
Montana State put forth its most lackluster effort on Oct. 15 at Weber State, falling behind 21-0 at the end of the first quarter and 42-14 at halftime, during a 45-27 loss. On Oct. 22 in Bozeman, Montana State held a 17-14 lead with two minutes left to play in the first half, only to see No. 3 Eastern Washington run away in a 41-17 Bobcat loss and a fifth straight conference defeat. MSU enters its bye the last week 0-5 in league play, and 2-6 overall.
Still, Choate sees sunrise on the horizon, and it gives him optimism.
“When you are 2-6, there’s not a lot to be fired up about but I also know our day is coming,” Choate said on Oct. 24. “That’s one of the reasons this has been so painful, because we are close.”
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.