BOZEMAN — Somehow, Montana State football’s incremental improvement in four years under coach Jeff Choate has been as workmanlike and reliable as an old F-150 ranch truck.
Somehow, there have been no hiccups, no bumps, no defeats that left Bobcat Believers scratching their heads as Choate won as many as he lost.
Somehow, even as the Bobcats endured the obligatory rebuilding pains, they also mustered three bragging-rights beat-downs of the Big Sky Conference’s longtime papa bear from the other side of the Divide.
I say “somehow,” because they’ve risen from also-ran to No. 8 in the nation despite a zany revolving door at the game’s most important position.
In the four seasons since electrifying Dakota Prukop grad-transferred to Oregon, leaving Choate to scramble from the get-go, six players have rotated through the position: A runner who made magic with his legs but struggled to pass (Chris Murray), a well-traveled drop-back passer who struggled to run and pass (Tyler Bruggman), a temporarily converted linebacker/tailback (Troy Andersen), the Oregon player-to-be-named-later whose immense skills are suited at wide receiver and the “wildcat” formation (Travis Jonsen), a promising but unpolished redshirt freshman (Casey Bauman) and a now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t, now-you-see-him-again sophomore (Tucker Rovig).
Revisiting that checkered history was especially timely Saturday given that the coin toss before MSU's nonconference game against Norfolk State featured the greatest QB in program history, one Travis Lulay, who dazzled and bedeviled with his arm and legs.
Saturday was a reboot for another five-letter QB in Rovig, from Meridian, Idaho, who started two games in 2018 as a redshirt freshman and seemed to perform best when he wasn't The Guy.
Rovig was the early clubhouse leader for the job this fall, but Bauman seized the role. Choate told Rovig earlier in the week that he would get another crack against Norfolk State, but that faith came with a borderline come-to-Jesus message.
“I basically said, ‘You’ve let this thing slip through your hands twice now. This opportunity may not come again. You’ve just got to believe in yourself and go play,’” Choate said in his postgame press conference. “And I think he did that. He performed at a high level today.”
Indeed he did, putting up Lulay-like numbers with his arm while engineering the Cats’ 56-21 victory.
Rovig was confident, composed and crisp, though it’s difficult to gauge given a Meh-AC foe that was allowing 30 points per game and was gashed for three 100-yard Bobcat rushers. Choate felt secure enough against the Spartans to rest the nicked-up Andersen for the looming Big Sky schedule.
All that said, Rovig had some revealing moments beyond his stat line of 21-for-27 passing for 221 yards and four TDs. As impressive as any was a play midway through the third quarter where he eluded rare pressure, sprinted to his left and threw a 25-yard sideline bullet across his body to tight end Derryk Snell.
Two plays later, he hit wide receiver Kevin Kassis square on his “85” from 21 yards out for a 42-14 lead.
Certainly Jonsen proved the Cats aren’t a one-trick pony at QB, keeping the Spartans off-balance — or, in his words, in “oh (bleep) mode” — by rushing for 60 yards on seven carries. Proving his value in a variety of ways, he also caught an 8-yard TD pass from Rovig.
“I just love it,” Jonsen said of being behind center. “It takes me back to the quarterback days.”
But chances are as Rovig goes, so will go the Cats — at least in crossing the elusive threshold between “very good” and “great”.
Clearly, the supporting casts on both sides of the ball are talented enough for the Bobcats to be a factor on the national stage even with a so-called “game manager” at the helm.
And just as clearly, a fan base that values the reliability of an old ranch truck senses the potential.
Bobcat Stadium was bathed in blue and yellow nearly end to end on a day where a largely uninspiring name across the opposing jerseys, chilly morning rain and statewide TV could easily have persuaded believers to stay home with their chicken wings, adult beverages and Griz voodoo dolls.
The crowd expected to see Bauman, who was like that old F-150 in guiding MSU to its dismantling of No. 12 SE Missouri — perhaps the biggest non-Griz win in Choate’s tenure — and an imperfect road success against Western Illinois.
No hiccups. No bumps. No head-scratchers.
Perhaps as much as a coach can ask of a redshirt freshman. But given the upside for this team, the Bobcats want — need — more than workmanlike and reliable.
They need what Rovig can provide, now.
And for that to occur, Rovig can’t buckle at what Choate described as “the elephant in the room”: His inability to maintain high-level confidence when the spotlight is on him. Choate noted Rovig conceded that as No. 1 he kept a wary eye on Bauman.
As No. 2?
“I would say a huge thing after (Bauman) was named starter, I considered it not a competition and I just needed to go play my football,” he said. “And when I get my chance and opportunity, just go be me.”
If Saturday’s performance is a peek at what “just go be me” will look like against the likes of UC Davis and the Griz, imagine the possibilities for a team that avoids Weber State and Eastern Washington on its schedule.
Somehow, you keep the multi-gifted Jonsen in the wildcat and as a wideout. Somehow, you keep the future pro Andersen fourth on the QB depth chart and dominating in other areas.
And somehow, after a workmanlike and reliable rise through the FCS ranks, you can picture a deep Montana State run in the postseason.