BOZEMAN — The lead-up to Montana State’s game last week against No. 5 Eastern Washington was met with the idea that it was an “arrival moment” for coach Jeff Choate’s team: A victory would perhaps set the Bobcats up for serious contention in the Big Sky Conference race. A loss would push them back towards the rest of the pack.
In the end, a flurry of mistakes — untimely penalties, missed opportunities, poor execution — are what doomed MSU. The Eagles left town with a 34-17 win, their seventh consecutive victory in the series.
“I was probably as down as I’ve been in a long, long time after that. I think our players were, too. The locker room was pretty somber,” Choate said Monday during his weekly news conference. “It was a tough loss.
“We had this conversation, kind of an ongoing conversation — outside noise, as well — about how do we measure up against the better teams in the Big Sky Conference? And clearly we did not measure up in a way that was going to allow us to win that game on Saturday.”
Now into their bye week, the Bobcats have time to regroup and reassess not only what went wrong against EWU, but also to take a hard look at where they stand in the grand scheme of the league race with six games remaining on their schedule.
MSU returns to the field Oct. 13 when it hosts Idaho for homecoming.
With a 3-2 overall record (and a 1-1 mark in the league), Choate said his team is about where most people would have expected at this point in the season. Though it could be better.
“We beat a team that I think is a good football team in Western Illinois in a hard-fought, tight game at our place,” Choate said. “We got beat up by South Dakota State and got beat Eastern, so we lost to the No. 3 and No. 5 team in the country. And we beat Wagner and Portland State, who I think we should beat. So we’re 3-2 going into the bye.
“I don’t know. I would probably say that if you were to pencil it out, that was what you’d say: Hey, 3-2 going into the bye, six conference games ahead of you, that’s probably where they have to be. We couldn’t be 2-3. Would have been awesome to be 4-1 or 5-0, but this is probably where we had to be.”
EWU took away the Bobcats’ tailback run game last week, which allowed the Eagles’ defense to tee off on quarterback Troy Andersen. Andersen was held under 100 rushing yards, was sacked three times and threw a pair of interceptions.
Choate said MSU’s offensive line didn’t have an answer for 320-pound nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli, who ate up inside running lanes.
The success of the Bobcats’ tailbacks, in particular Isaiah Ifanse, has fluctuated through five games. Ifanse had back-to-back 100-yard performances against Wagner and Portland State, but was held to just 31 yards on eight attempts by EWU.
The offense hopes to find more run-game stability within its desired style, which is to play Andersen off Ifanse and vice versa.
Meanwhile, Montana State got a defensive takeaway when cornerback Greg Filer III intercepted Eagles QB Gage Gubrud, but that was just the Bobcats’ fourth takeaway of the season through five games.
MSU is minus-2 in turnover margin so far: With six offensive giveaways the Bobcats are protecting the ball at a fairly high level, but the number of takeaways, Choate said, needs to increase.
“That’s an area that we have to improve upon. As I’ve said, I think we’ve left some things out there,” Choate said. “That’s a little bit of an enigma, because I think we’re getting the appropriate amount of pressure on the quarterback, and that’s a huge deal. And we’ve been pretty good on third downs. So we’ve got to find a way to maximize that.”
Choate had said that his team’s three personal foul penalties from the Eastern Washington loss are what disappointed him the most. He said the Bobcats’ maturity level is not where it needs to be.
That, too, will be a point of emphasis during the bye week.
“I think we’ve got a chance to be a very good football team,” Choate said. “I think our talent level is increasing, I think we’ve recruited well, I think we’re developing identity, (but) I think we’re a little immature right now.
“I’ve said it over and over — this is the most mature team I’ve had. But we play seven seniors. I think where (we’re) mature is they understand the process. They get it. You’ve got to do X, Y, and Z if you want to have the outcome that you want. But they’ve got to live through some of those moments, too. We’re getting better, but Saturday wasn’t good enough.”
NOTES: Choate said LB Josh Hill, who underwent a second back surgery before the season, is not likely to return. Choate did say that RB Tyrel Burgess, who suffered a leg or foot injury late in fall camp, will return, as might backfield mate Logan Jones, who suffered from a hernia and hasn’t played this season. Choate said Jones could return in time for the Montana game on Nov. 17.