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‘How about the guys that are playing?’: ‘Cats keep rolling despite injuries

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Running back Elijah Elliot started the season low on the depth chart but his 156 yards helped carry the Bobcats to a tight win over Eastern Washington in the fourth week of the season. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

By Tom Stuber SKYLINE SPORTS

You have to forgive the media, and fans, sometimes. Most of the time when injuries occur in sports the expectation is that there’s going to be a drop off.  In some cases, it’s a sky-is-falling feeling where the thought of someone else filling that role is impossible to wrap your head around.

That feeling is slowly being erased, however, at Montana State where the football team never seems to miss a beat when a player is hurt.

MSU head coach Brent Vigen had finally been asked enough times about a player that wasn’t suiting up on Saturday evening following the Bobcats’ huge 43-38 Big Sky Conference win over previously undefeated and fifth-ranked Weber State.

“We’ve been talking a lot about the guys that aren’t playing. How about the guys that are playing?” Vigen calmly asked. “We’ve got a good group of guys that are out there, and you’re going to have some guys that aren’t on the field one Saturday or the next. The guys out there, though, we trust completely, and they’re getting better and better.”

His timing was perfect.

The Bobcats had just seen its offensive line dominate Weber State for four quarters. The unsung heroes of every football team with a good offense, especially, a good running game are famous for not being famous.

Center Justus Perkins has anchored the MSU offensive line all season. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

Saturday in Bozeman center Justus Perkins, guards JT Reed and Omar Aigbedion, tackles Jacob Kettles and Rush Reimer outdid themselves. Aigbedion, a freshman, was starting in the place of injured starter Cole Sain at right guard. Kettles, a redshirt freshman who’s career was delayed early on by a knee injury of his own, was making his first career start at right tackle in place of injured Marcus Wehr.

The offensive line unit as a whole had played great all season, but they performed a masterpiece against the Wildcats.

All year, MSU has been averaging more per rush than their opponents had been allowing. Saturday, however, they blew those performances away. Weber came into the game allowing just 2.7 yards per carry and MSU obliterated that number by gaining 6.5 per carry and finishing with 367 yards rushing against one of the best defensive units in the country.

MSU leads the conference and ranks second nationally by averaging 290 yards per game on the ground. And that’s with All-American Isaiah Ifanse out to this point of the season, San Diego State transfer Kaegun Williams ruled out for the season before the season even began and Lane Sumner in and out of the lineup so far during his junior year. Plus, Jared White snapped his leg in his first career start in Week 2.

The Wildcats had only allowed one rushing touchdown on the season (six games) but gave up four to the Bobcats. They allowed no sacks to a WSU team that was third in the league with 15 coming into the game and just one tackle-for-loss. Quarterback Tommy Mellott was hurried just twice.

One particular play, which MSU football put out on its Twitter feed, saw the linemen and tight ends win every battle on the line. The play produced a 36-yard touchdown run by Mellott, who finished the day with 273 yards rushing.

It was highlighted by a devastating block on the edge by tight end Derryk Snell, pulling left guard Reed’s seal block and center Perkins’ block of the middle linebacker. The other tight end in the formation, Treyton Pickering, and the remaining three linemen (Aigbedion, Kettles and Reimer) all engaged their man and forced them away from the direction of the play. The same play produced another TD run by Mellott, this one of 42 yards, earlier in the game.

“What (the blockers) do is second to none, those guys are who deserve all the credit certainly for today,” said Mellott , who took all the snaps last week with Sean Chambers on the shelf. “I don’t think I broke a tackle to be honest with you. They opened a lot of holes. Tight ends as well and the wide receivers out there – they pride themselves on that.”

All-American running back Isaiah Ifanse has been sidelined all year. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

On defense Blake Schmidt, who registered a sack against Weber, has been playing in the shadow of budding star Sebastian Valdez. Schmidt, however, is third on the team in sacks, fourth in tackles-for-loss and second in quarterback hurries. MSU’s interior hasn’t had much fall off despite the graduation of All-American Chase Benson.

Nolan Askelson, who doesn’t start, but gets a lot of minutes at linebacker has the team’s season-high for tackles for a single game and is fourth on the team in tackles. Danny Uliulakepa, who like Schmidt plays in the shadow of captain Callahan O’Reilly, is the teams leading tackler on the season.

In the secondary, cornerback James Campbell is putting together a solid season. He leads the unit in interceptions and has 18 tackles. His partner on the other corner Simeon Woodard is fifth on the team in tackles and fourth in tackles-for-loss.

Blake Schmidt makes a tackle in the FCS semifinal game against South Dakota State University in December 2021. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

The Bobcats regularly rotate seven players (Valdez, Schmidt, Brody Grebe, Ben Seymour, Kenneth Eiden IV, David Alston, Blake Hehl) along the defensive line and have multiple combinations at linebacker and in the secondary. Safeties Tyson Pottenger and Kendric Bailey, cornerbacks Dru Polidore and Tyrel Thomas regularly see action.

“That’s a year-round deal,” Vigen said about the number of solid players MSU has both starting and rotating in. “That’s a (strength and conditioning coach) Sean Herrin, Pete’s Hill, in the weight room thing. I think that’s just our players believing in one another and when you have good players believing in one another that’s pretty powerful.”

The Bobcats had a bye this week. MSU is in action again Nov. 5 in Flagstaff, Ariz. where they’ll take on Northern Arizona at 1 p.m.

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