MACOMB, Ill. — Their focus wasn’t what it needed to be at times and their execution was not up to par. On top of that, one of their best offensive players, running back Isaiah Ifanse, was on the sideline in street clothes.
But somehow, some way, the Montana State Bobcats escaped the grips of Missouri Valley Football Conference foe Western Illinois to claim a 23-14 victory on a hot and humid Saturday at Hanson Field.
Running back Logan Jones rushed 21 times for 167 yards and two touchdowns (all career highs) and placekicker Tristan Bailey hit three field goals, including a 47-yarder with 2:40 remaining to give 10th-ranked MSU (2-1) an all-important two-possession lead.
The Bobcats were penalized 12 times for 92 yards — some of them sloppy procedure infractions or untimely personal fouls — and converted just two out of 16 third-down plays. They also had a kickoff return touchdown by Lane Sumner wiped out and a long interception return TD by Damien Washington nullified by holding penalties.
Troy Andersen was bottled up, too, and he netted zero rushing yards. Nevertheless, MSU was able to pick up its first road victory of the season in a difficult environment.
“It was not an attractive football game,” Bobcats coach Jeff Choate said. “I think we penalized ourselves three or four different times on special teams today. Very uncharacteristic. There was a lot of holding calls that we had to overcome. We put our defense in some bad situations, but they rose to the challenge.
“I had this thing circled as a trap game from Day 1. I knew it was going to be a tough trip. Travel wasn’t going to be easy, environment was going to be tough. Coming off an emotional win (over Southeast Missouri), I’m very pleased to walk out of here with a W.”
All week, Jones, a fifth-year senior from Kalispell, had an inkling that he’d have an increased role. Ifanse, the Bobcats’ standout sophomore rusher, missed the second half of last week’s win over Southeast Missouri due to injury and his availability in this game was in question up until warmups.
Jones answered the call, scoring on a 14-yard run on MSU’s opening drive and later racing 87-yards to the end zone in third quarter to put his team up 17-7.
But it was Jones’ fumble in the second quarter — which ended a promising drive — that served as his mental turning point.
“I was very upset with myself,” he said of his giveaway. “But as I went to the sideline I wasn’t down, I wasn’t hanging my head. I was giving guys high fives like, ‘We’ll be OK.’ I came up to the O-line and said, ‘Keep blocking, keep going.’
“If I would have let that affect me, I couldn’t have done anything for those guys, and that’s what I want to do, just play for them.”
Bailey, meanwhile, missed a field goal in each of the Bobcats’ first two games but was perfect on all three of his attempts Saturday. Bailey made four field goals in MSU’s 26-23 victory over Western Illinois last year in Bozeman, and he continued that trend.
His 47-yarder was set up by a pair of WIU penalties — a roughing the passer call and a pass interference foul — that kept the drive alive on third down.
Bailey, who also hit a 41-yarder earlier in the fourth quarter, said he knew his kick was going to be good after it left his foot, but he still waited until it went through the uprights to raise his arms in elation.
Bailey said the coaches “knew it was in my range, so they asked, ‘Are you ready?’ And I said, ‘Yeah I am. I’m ready to go. Let’s do it.’”
“There was no worry, I just wanted to make sure. I knew it was right down the middle, it was just one of those things I wanted to wait for it to cross over before I celebrate.”
Washington’s weaving and meandering interception return went 90 yards, and despite the fact that it was negated by a penalty it still served as drive-snuffing play that returned momentum to MSU’s side.
It was Washington’s first career interception, and he helped lead a defensive effort that produced two takeaways, two sacks and seven tackles for loss. Leathernecks quarterback Connor Sampson finished with 281 passing yards but WIU struggled to establish a ground game.
Sampson hooked up with Dennis Houston for a 65-yard catch-and-run touchdown to tie the game 7-7 before halftime. Fullback Jared Drake had WIU’s other score, a 3-yard run in the third quarter.
Clint Ratkovich, one of the top pass-catching running backs in the MVFC, was held to just 30 yards of offense.
Defensive end Bryce Sterk led the Bobcats with seven tackles and a sack.
Montana State couldn’t get out of its own way for most of the game, but prevailed in the end. The Bobcats return home to face Norfolk State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference on Saturday. It will be the final nonconference game before Big Sky play commences Sept. 28.
“We’re not going to have perfect games every game,” Washington said. “Some games are going to be like this, where it’s a slugfest. We’ve got to be able to do that, to play those kind of games.
“The game got real tight, but we knew this was still our game.”
NOTES: Bobcats QB Casey Bauman completed 16 of 30 passes for 149 yards. … Choate said afterward that Ifanse’s injury is “not long term.” … Sterk is up to five QB sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss through three games. … MSU is now 4-0 all-time against Western Illinois and 2-0 at Hanson Field. … Choate is at .500 for the first time in his tenure with the Bobcats (19-19).