BOZEMAN — It wasn’t too long ago that Montana State had won five consecutive games and was creeping closer to a top-five ranking in the national polls. But that was before consecutive losses to Sacramento State and North Dakota put a halt to the Bobcats’ hot start.
There’s a lot of football left, and fourth-year MSU coach Jeff Choate said the players and coaches “are going to work really, really hard” to right the ship down the stretch.
The No. 14-ranked Bobcats (5-3, 2-2 Big Sky) host Southern Utah (2-7, 1-4) on Saturday in the hopes of reigniting their offense and getting back in the win column for the first time since early October.
Entering the 2019 season, expectations had never been higher in Choate’s tenure with the Bobcats. But with four games remaining MSU knows it must get on a roll or risk falling further behind in the Big Sky Conference standings and leave their FCS postseason hopes to chance.
“It creates a lot of urgency. It forces you to look at details,” senior defensive lineman Derek Marks said. “It forces you to look in the mirror a little more and figure out what’s going on, figure out what needs changed. It’s humbling, and it’s humbling in a good way to be forced to do that.
“I think a lot of mistakes get kind of hidden when you’re winning. When you lose those mistake are (magnified). There are things that we need to address. It’s not too late. It’s not too late for us to fix those things and hopefully start winning more games. We have everything out in front of us.”
This isn’t uncharted territory for the Bobcats.
Last October, MSU lost consecutive games to Weber State and Idaho State, which dropped its record to 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the league. Its playoff hopes were all but dashed.
It was around that time that assistant coach Matt Miller was promoted to offensive coordinator, and things began to turn around. The Bobcats closed the regular season with wins over Cal Poly, Northern Colorado and rival Montana to qualify for the playoffs and earn a home playoff game.
After the Southern Utah game this week, MSU will travel to UC Davis and Northern Colorado in consecutive weeks, then will host the Grizzlies in the 119th meeting between the schools.
It remains to be seen if a similar turnaround is in the offing, but the Bobcats certainly have proven in the past that they are able to play their best football late in the season.
Under Choate, the Bobcats’ cumulative November record is 7-3.
“We kind of almost feel more comfortable being a team that people overlook, being a team that’s kind of an underdog and not being the favorites. That’s just kind of where we’ve been,” Marks said.
“The pressure has always been on late in the season for us to win and for us to accomplish what we want to. I think we kind of thrive off that, and thrive off the pressure of, all right, if we want to get in the postseason we’ve got to turn some things around.”
The Bobcats’ defense continues to perform effectively under the direction of first-year coordinator Kane Ioane. It’s the offense that needs a shot in the arm.
Miller’s group struggled to find balance in the 16-12 loss last week at North Dakota. Quarterback Tucker Rovig passed for merely 77 yards while the running game turned to true freshman DeMareus Hosey and linebacker Troy Andersen (“out of necessity,” Choate said) without the full services of top hobbled tailbacks Isaiah Ifanse and Logan Jones.
Hosey and Andersen had runs of 48 and 49 yards, but the offense missed key opportunities by failing to make the available plays. The game was decided when the Fighting Hawks blocked an MSU punt in the fourth quarter and recovered it in the end zone for the go-ahead points.
Choate said Miller, in the grand scheme of things, is still evolving as an offensive coordinator.
“Statistically, Matt’s tenure here as the play-caller has been our best,” Choate said of Miller. “I think that there’s a variety of reasons why you have lulls. Some of it is film.
“Tucker’s been on film for a while, now they’ve got some things on him. Some of it is some of the playmakers that we had early in the season we don’t necessarily have access to right now. Some of it is Matt getting more film and people understanding who he is.
“I don’t know if it’s growing pains, but Matt’s not a finished product. He’s a really smart guy and he’s a really hard worker, and he has the confidence and the trust of our team. He’ll continue to improve. There’s no doubt.”
Nothing’s certain, but the Bobcats might need to reach the eight-win threshold to qualify for the postseason.
On paper, Montana State’s next two games — versus Southern Utah and at Northern Colorado — are winnable. The Thunderbirds and Bears have won a combined three games all season.
The trip to UC Davis on Nov. 16 will be a big test — despite the Aggies’ struggles this year. And, of course, all bets will be off when Montana visits Bobcat Stadium the following week.
In a rivalry game, that’s usually the case.
Choate is 3-0 against the Grizzlies. But the team is not looking that far ahead.
“It stings and it’s tough, and we can control what we can control moving forward,” Choate said. “We’ve got to not listen to outside noise (and) stay focused on what we’ve got to do to improve.
“Now it’s about toughness, it’s about discipline, it’s about passion, it’s about competitiveness. And that’s what we’ve got to hang our hat on right now.”