BOZEMAN — In 2016, in Jeff Choate’s collegiate head coaching debut, Montana State had an opportunity to upset Idaho on the road but couldn’t effectively move the ball when it mattered most in the fourth quarter.
The Vandals, members of the FBS Sun Belt Conference at the time, escaped with a 20-17 win.
Choate, who grew up in the north Idaho town of St. Maries and considered himself a Vandals fan during his youth, said after the game that all the Bobcats needed was a little more time on the clock.
It’s been more than two years since that night in Moscow, Idaho, and Montana State finally gets another crack at beating Idaho, this time at Bobcat Stadium in an important Big Sky Conference matchup.
It is a rekindling of an old rivalry, and counts as the Vandals’ first visit to MSU since Oct. 7, 1995, a game the Bobcats won 16-13. That was also the last time Montana State beat UI.
The Bobcats (3-2, 1-1 Big Sky) are coming off a bye following a home loss to Eastern Washington on Sept. 29. Idaho (2-3, 1-2) its licking its wounds from last week’s 62-28 thrashing at Idaho State, a game in which it gave up a staggering 754 yards of offense.
Idaho, coached by Butte native and former Carroll College quarterback Paul Petrino, has been a bit wobbly in its first season back in the Big Sky after a 20-plus-year stint in the FBS. Idaho enters Saturday giving up roughly 40 points per game to opponents.
“They did not have their competitive edge” against Idaho State, Choate said. “They gave up a ton of yards and a lot of explosive plays to a very good outfit.
“It’s a team that’s going to come in here with a lot of motivation. Very, very talented group overall. They just haven’t put the pieces together.”
The Bobcats are trying to put their own pieces together, particularly in the running game after being bottled up in their loss to Eastern Washington. MSU’s offense is built to thrive on the ground, and winning has proven more difficult when it struggles to produce in that facet.
In victories over Western Illinois, Wagner and Portland State, the Bobcats averaged 242 rushing yards. In losses to South Dakota State and Eastern Washington, that number plummeted to 92.
Obviously, MSU relies heavily on Troy Andersen when he is in at quarterback, but the x-factor seems to be tailback Isaiah Ifanse, who diversifies the ground game when he is consistently churning out positive yards.
Ifanse had 100 or more yards in each of the wins against Wagner and PSU, but saw his opportunities — and his production — dwindle in the loss to EWU.
“We tried to change our game a little bit for Eastern. We wanted to keep the ball away from them just because of how dominant their offense can be,” MSU left tackle Mitch Brott said.
“I’d say for this game we’re going back to the fundamentals. We’re not going to be doing anything elaborate. It’s just going to be smash-mouth football — come off the line and see how well we can go against their D line.”
Choate likes the look of Idaho’s front seven, which is propped up by tackle Cameron Townsend, linebacker Ed Hall, and edge rusher Kaden Elliss, one of the premier defensive players in the conference.
Still, a big reason for the Vandals’ struggles is their lack of defensive takeaways. Idaho is a Big Sky-worst minus-11 in turnover margin, and it didn’t force its first turnover until last week’s loss at Idaho State.
“One of the things that showed up in the Idaho State game, the coverage really wasn’t that bad at times. It’s about making plays on the ball,” Choate said. “Being in position to make a play and making a play sometimes are two different things, and so you credit, obviously, the Idaho State receivers for going up and making plays on the ball.
“I’m sure that’s something that’s a point of emphasis for the University of Idaho right now. ‘When the ball’s in the air let’s attack the ball.’ So that’s something that has eluded them to this point.”
The Bobcats, for what it’s worth, have turned the ball over six times through five games.
Spotlight on: Kaden Elliss
Choate thinks Idaho’s Elliss is one of the best players, period, in the Big Sky Conference.
“Turn the tape on if you don’t believe me,” Choate said this week.
The Vandals use Elliss in a variety of ways — as a pass rusher on either side of the line or at the strong-side linebacker position. The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder chases quarterbacks, and the ball, with a high motor.
Elliss has an impressive football pedigree. His father, Luther Elliss, was an All-American defensive lineman at Utah and went on to become an NFL Pro Bowler with the Lions. He is in his second season as the defensive line coach at Idaho.
Kaden Elliss, who also at times lines up at tight end, takes after his father, and the Bobcats are implicitly aware of his playmaking ability. So far on defense, Elliss has three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
“He’s great with his hands, he has good knockoff,” said Brott, who will likely go head-to-head with Elliss at times on Saturday. “He’s stronger than he looks.”
“He plays hard. You can tell,” Choate said. “His dad’s on the sideline probably making sure of that. He’s a very fluid kid. You can tell he’s been coached at a very high level.
“He uses his hands a lot better than a lot of FCS edge-rush guys do. Really fluid hips, can run, has long levers, he’s tenacious in terms of his level of pursuit … he’s an elite player at our level, for sure.”