BOZEMAN — The message was clear under the auspices of team morale all week at Montana State.
Senior linebacker Josh Hill, renowned as one of the Bobcats’ foremost leaders, explained it as a need for confidence and urgency on the heels of a difficult defeat at North Dakota seven days prior, which was the team’s second consecutive loss.
“We hadn’t won a game in a few weeks and we just hadn’t put our best football out there, either,” Hill said. “Last weekend hurt. It was motivating for our team to say, ‘We’re a better football team than this and we know it, and we need to go out and show it.’”
No. 14-ranked MSU showed it Saturday during a 42-7 rout of Big Sky Conference combatant Southern Utah in front of 15,617 fans at Bobcat Stadium.
Lane Sumner ran for two first-quarter touchdowns, quarterback Tucker Rovig threw for two scores and caught another, and the defense forced four turnovers as Montana State raised its record to 8-3 in November games under fourth-year coach Jeff Choate.
MSU improved to 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big Sky standings. Southern Utah dropped to 2-8 and 1-5.
Choate had a similar message for his team and his coaching staff during the week: Play to win.
Offensively the Bobcats were more crisp than they were against both UND and Sacramento State, going away from the wildcat formations (to a large degree) that helped them win five straight games earlier in the year yet remaining creative with their sets and play calls.
With tailback Isaiah Ifanse inactive due to his lingering lower-body injury, Sumner handled a lot of the load on the ground and finished with 93 yards on 13 attempts. Eight different MSU rushers produced 176 net yards.
“This week my preparation was the same, just knowing that we had some guys out and I had to step up,” said Sumner, a Huntley Project graduate who ran 34 yards on a shovel pass to set up his first touchdown.
“It felt really good, especially after the last two games kind of struggling on the offensive side of the ball. I thought we were really clicking. It was a lot of fun and there was a lot of energy.”
Rovig hit a wide-open Jaden Smith down the sideline for a 47-yard score, found tight end Derryk Snell for a 10-yard touchdown later, and receiver Tyrone Marshall scored on an 18-yard end-around run to put MSU up 35-0.
The touchdowns for Smith, Snell and Marshall were the first for their careers.
The Bobcats led 42-0 at halftime after receiver Kevin Kassis took a QB snap and threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Rovig in the corner of the end zone.
“That was an interesting way to start the game,” Choate said. “I didn’t really see us having that kind of an outpouring of scoring in the first half.”
MSU’s defense ruled the day, and the Bobcats’ offense produced more than enough points. Linebacker Troy Andersen was a catalyst.
Andersen sacked quarterback Chris Helbig on SUU’s first play from scrimmage to set the tone. Andersen finished the game with eight tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss, a pass breakup and his first career interception.
Linebacker Amandre Williams intercepted Helbig along the sideline in the first half. Hill forced a fumble that was recovered by safety Brayden Konkol.
The Bobcats’ Ty Okada also recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter.
MSU’s defense sacked Helbig and Thunderbirds backups Tyler Skidmore and Justin Miller (they played all three QBs) five times and produced 14 tackles for loss.
Southern Utah got on the board with 5:06 remaining in the game when Miller found Gavin Eyre over the middle for a 22-yard touchdown pass. But by then the game was decided.
“It just came down to our fundamentals and some of the things we hadn’t done over the last two games that we needed to do to win,” Hill said of MSU’s defense. “It just came down to aligning correctly, making sure we all had our correct fits and tackling.”
The Bobcats know they must finish the regular season strong to have a shot at a berth in the 24-team FCS postseason tournament. There’s not much room for error. Saturday was the first step.
Next week MSU travels to play Northern Colorado, the first of two straight road games before returning home to play archrival Montana on Nov. 23.
“Obviously we’ve got another test as we go down to Northern Colorado next week,” Choate said. “They play very well at home and we can’t look ahead. This is a one-game-at-a-time type of mindset that we’ve got to have.”
NOTES: MSU’s 42-points before intermission tied for the fifth-most in a first half in school history. … MSU TE Jacob Hadley was active for the first time since a Week 1 game at Texas Tech. … Ex-Bobcats QB and college football hall of fame coach Dennis Erickson was announced as an honorary MSU captain before the game.