BOZEMAN — With a 38-17 victory last week over Southeast Missouri in a battle of top-15 teams, Montana State accomplished a noteworthy milestone in the four-year term of head coach Jeff Choate.
The win pushed the Bobcats (1-1) ahead three spots and into the No. 10 ranking in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll, which was released Monday. It serves as MSU’s highest ranking since October of 2014, when it was slotted No. 8 under previous coach Rob Ash.
As you might imagine, none of that matters right now to Choate, who said Monday during his weekly press conference that this week’s road contest against winless Western Illinois (0-2) is every bit as important and challenging as the game against Southeast Missouri.
“One of the things that I’ve told these guys really since the season started was what a big game I think this Western Illinois game is,” Choate said. “Last week there was some talk about that SEMO game being a statement game. To me, the real statement is going to be made by how we prepare and play this week.
“We’ve not been the best road team during my tenure. We’ve played some very challenging opponents on the road, but that’s no excuse. This is the game I think that’s going to define who we are as a team. How we prepare, how we play, the type of mindset that we take into this is very critical.”
Montana State is 5-12 in road games under Choate, and the trip to Western Illinois, which is located in Macomb, Illinois, is one the coach described as difficult for more than one reason.
The game is a rematch of last year’s Gold Rush opener at Bobcat Stadium, which MSU survived by a 26-23 score. But as Choate pointed out, the Bobcats couldn’t carry the momentum from that win and were beaten soundly by a very good South Dakota State team on the road the following week.
Will MSU fare better this time facing a similar scenario?
“We had an experience last year where we played a ranked team (WIU) that was a playoff team the year before, had an emotional victory at home, and we played extremely poorly the next week on the road at South Dakota State,” Choate said.
“That’s one of the things we talked about, and I think it’s definitely in our guys’ mind that we’ve got to be on a different mission. We get nothing this week for what happened on Saturday night (against SEMO). Nothing.
“We’re going to play a really good opponent who’s going to be challenging to compete against and we need our best.”
A year later, Western Illinois is a different team under coach Jared Elliott. The Leathernecks have a new quarterback in junior Connor Sampson, and two stars from a year ago — versatile running back Steve McShane and 300-pound interior defensive lineman Khalen Saunders — are gone, with the latter being a third-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs.
But Choate is putting nothing past WIU, which will be playing its first home game of the season at Hanson Field after consecutive road losses to North Alabama and Colorado State.
“I think coach Elliott has done a really good job there,” Choate said. “They had a tough loss on the road to North Alabama and they walked into a little bit of a buzz saw in the first half against Colorado State last week.
“But you watch these kids compete and play at the end of that game, and I was very impressed. There’s no doubt that the culture is where it needs to be there.”
Another factor the Bobcats must contend with is the difficulty of this trip in terms of logistics.
Choate said the team will fly into Moline, Illinois, on Friday, take an hour bus ride to the hotel to stay overnight, and then travel another hour on Saturday to Hanson Field for the game, which kicks off at 2 p.m. Mountain Time.
“It’s kind of a triangle,” Choate said of the geographic travel plans. “I was trying to explain it to our captains yesterday and they were like, ‘This is … what are we doing?’ But we’ve kind of done our research, and most of the people — North Dakota State, Montana, some of the teams that have played there — that’s what they kind of felt like was the best when they’ve tried different things.
“We’ve got to roll with the punches. It is what it is. If the bus gets a flat tire we’re not going to not play. Load everybody on one bus and let’s go. And so we’ve got to be able to respond the right way.
“It’s not an easy trip. We know that. But that shouldn’t affect our preparation at all.”
Montana State is 3-0 all-time against Western Illinois, with its only road victory in the series occurring on Sept. 4, 1993, a 29-16 win.