BOZEMAN — Prior to Friday’s weighty quarterfinal game at Bobcat Stadium, defensive lineman Derek Marks took some time to appreciate his journey at Montana State.
These are the playoffs, and it’s win or go home. For Marks and his fellow seniors, it’s win or go home forever.
But Marks, didn’t lose focus on the task at hand and neither did his mates on defense, who did a bang-up job in shutting down quarterback JaVaughn Craig and Austin Peay on the way to a 24-10 victory in front of 14,017 raucous fans who had been waiting for a night like this for more than three decades.
With the win, the Bobcats advanced to the FCS semifinals for the first time since 1984, which just happens to be the last time the program won a national championship.
“Growing up around the program and being able to wear the blue and gold … it’s fun, man,” Marks said afterward with a look of contentment on his face. “Before the game I was remembering the four years of work that I’ve put into this program with the guys around me — that we’ve put into this program.
“It’s a big stage and we haven’t had a big game like that in Bozeman for a while.”
But the process wasn’t particularly pretty. In a game that featured 18 combined penalties, four official video reviews and countless stops and starts, the Bobcats won the way they usually do — on the strength of their stout running game.
Isaiah Ifanse rushed for 198 yards on 26 carries, and scored on a 60-yard scamper on the third play of the game to give the Bobcats a lead they'd never surrender. MSU totaled 279 rushing yards as a team.
Defensively, the Bobcats intercepted Craig twice and forced three turnovers altogether. They limited the Governors to 18 rushing yards on 19 carries, and didn’t allow a first down until the second quarter.
“Playing on a big stage, I think it’s important to come out hot and set the tone early,” Marks said. “From there it’s just trying to stay focused and keep doing it down after down. We knew they were explosive. It was a matter of staying focused. It was a huge start for us.”
Bobcats quarterback Tucker Rovig threw for 114 yards, including a 6-yard scoring pass to receiver Kevin Kassis in the back corner of the end zone.
Ifanse also threw a touchdown pass to defensive lineman Jason Scrempos in the third quarter, a 2-yard lob over the defense from the wildcat formation to put the Bobcats ahead 24-3.
Ifanse’s performance was reminiscent of his 139-yard effort in a playoff victory last season against Incarnate Word.
“He’s a tough runner,” MSU guard Lewis Kidd said. “It gives us a little bit of reassurance when we get our blocks done and we see Isaiah take off, drive someone into the ground, fight through a few tackles. It’s awesome to see and gets us excited.”
Austin Peay finally found the end zone when Craig, rolling to his right, found speedy receiver DeAngelo Wilson for a 76-yard touchdown pass with 13:11 remaining. Craig got out of the pocket and hit Wilson in stride, and he took it the rest of the way.
But it was the only real time Craig, a dual-threat athlete and the triggerman in what is otherwise an explosive offense, escaped MSU’s pressure to make a big play.
The Bobcats sacked Craig four times and feasted on their ability to make Austin Peay one dimensional.
The Govs were always one play away from making it a one-score game in the fourth quarter, but Marks stripped Craig on Austin Peay’s final snap and the ball was recovered by defensive end Bryce Sterk, and the Bobcats were able to kneel on the ball to finish the game.
“When it turns into a dropback game, I tell you what, these guys up front love it,” Bobcats coach Jeff Choate said. “I think our staff had a great plan, I think our young men believe in each other and our coaches. It’s rarified air for this program right now, and that’s pretty special.”
“Sometimes you just tip your hat to your opponent,” said first-year Austin Peay coach Mark Hudspeth. “There’s not a lot of excuses to make. All I can say is Montana State’s got an outstanding football team, and outstanding home-field advantage.
“I thought our defense, though, gave us a chance to stay in the game. We gave ourselves a chance. We just couldn’t get a lot going offensively due to them.”
Troy Andersen missed his third consecutive game due to injury, but this outcome marked the Bobcats’ sixth consecutive victory. It pushed their record to 11-3, their most wins in a season since 2012.
Austin Peay, which was making its first trip to the playoffs in school history, finished 11-4.
The Bobcats will face either North Dakota State or Illinois State in the semifinals next week. The Bison host the Redbirds in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
“This is a team. No one individual makes this thing go,” Choate said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s on offense, defense, special teams, we’ve had a lot of guys go down through the course of the year. I think our depth and the commitment that these young men have for each other is really what has pushed us forward.”