By Colter Nuanez EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – Since the outset of Big Sky Conference play, the No. 21 Montana State Bobcats have proven if they start fast, they’re hard to catch.
During each of MSU’s two Big Sky victories, the Bobcats have won the coin toss and wasted no time taking the lead. In a 45-28 victory over Cal Poly on Sept. 26, the Bobcats shot out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter before cruising to a homecoming win.
In a 35-13 win over Sacramento State on Oct. 10, the Bobcats scored touchdowns on their first two possessions and rode the momentum to victory.
In each game, MSU elected to take the ball to begin the game. Against Cal Poly, the Bobcats knew an early lead would both benefit the hosts and impede a ball-control team like the Mustangs. Cal Poly runs a triple-option offense that eats up the clock, and once MSU had a three-score lead, the Mustangs helped defeat themselves.
Against Sac State, MSU knew 14 points could be a magic number against a reeling Hornets team that came into the game on a four-game losing streak and averaging just 13.5 points per game against Division I opponents.
“It’s high-risk to take the ball first and you really need to be able to do something with it,” MSU ninth-year head coach Rob Ash said. “It was a strange start to the game because we had the ball once, they had the ball once, and only one minute [had] gone off the clock. It was a fabulous start on both sides, just what we needed.”
Montana State’s offense is one of the most potent, explosive attacks in all of college football. The Bobcats are averaging 43.2 points per game, the sixth-best mark in the Football Championship Subdivision. MSU is rolling up 565 yards a game of total offense – third most in the country – as junior quarterback Dakota Prukop leads the nation in total offense per game.
But the Bobcat defense has struggled, particularly on the road and when playing without a lead. MSU gave up 55 points in a five-point loss on Sept. 19 to Eastern Washington, and 49 points in an eight-point loss at Northern Arizona on Oct. 3.
Against Sac State, the Bobcats knew an early lead would do wonders, since the Hornets have sputtered offensively all season and MSU’s defense entered the game searching for confidence. The Bobcats wasted no time as Prukop found sophomore Mitchell Herbert for a 79-yard catch-and-run touchdown on the second play of the game.
The Bobcat defense then forced a punt and MSU responded with another scoring drive, this one capped by a 9-yard rushing touchdown by sophomore wide receiver Justin Paige on a double-reverse play. The Bobcats cruised from there.
“We expected to score on the drive but not that fast,” Prukop said after throwing for 277 yards, rushing for 69 and accounting for three touchdowns. “Our offense wants to get points on the board and have a fast start because when we have a fast start on offense, I know it gets the defense going too.”
The victory over Sac State moved Montana State to 2-1 in Big Sky Conference play, and 3-2 overall. As of press time on Oct. 14, the Bobcats were undefeated (3-0) this season at Bobcat Stadium but winless away from Bozeman. MSU lost to No. 14 Portland State 59-42 on Oct. 17 and returns home for a non-conference game Oct. 24 against East Tennessee State.
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.