MSU Football v. San Diego (copy)

Bobcats quarterback Matthew McKay runs against San Diego on Saturday. (Rachel Leathe/Chronicle)

As Matthew McKay held the ball out to hand it off, a San Diego defender froze. This was all McKay needed to make his decision.

Isaiah Ifanse snagged the ball from McKay. Because Montana State’s quarterback is so much of a threat to run, the San Diego player stopped in preparation to take down McKay. Instead, Ifanse zoomed by, rushing 74 yards and nearly scoring a touchdown.

McKay, a junior who transferred from North Carolina State, has run the ball plenty for the No. 13-ranked Bobcats, who begin Big Sky play at Portland State at 3:05 p.m. Saturday. And that capability has given defenses fits.

McKay doesn’t prefer to stay in the pocket or go on the run. He’s thrived in both scenarios.

“Just depends on the situation,” he said. “Just being smart about what I do.”

Montana State (2-1) has been adamant about relying on the ground game. Even if MSU’s running backs struggle, the Bobcats can do that because of McKay.

Behind Ifanse, McKay is the second-leading rusher on the team with 128 yards on 26 carries while averaging 4.9 yards per attempt. Against San Diego, he totaled 61 yards on nine runs.

With opponents focusing so much on Ifanse, who eclipsed 2,000 career yards earlier this season, McKay was given chances to take advantage.

“They don’t give him enough credit when he pulls the ball and he starts running. He’s pretty fast,” Ifanse said. “They’ve always got to watch out for him on the perimeter.”

In 2019, the Bobcats didn’t have as much of a rushing threat behind center unless linebacker Troy Andersen or wide receiver Travis Jonsen took snaps at wildcat quarterback. Even then, defenses could at least expect MSU to run the ball.

With McKay as the signal caller, opponents don’t have that luxury.

“It’s insane,” MSU wide receiver Willie Patterson said. “Having his ability to scramble and get loose and then actually break some tackles, it just sparks us all when you see your quarterback laying it all out on the line, taking hits, getting up, making passes.”

Patterson and MSU left tackle Lewis Kidd said playing with McKay is a slight adjustment. As an offensive lineman, Kidd has to sustain blocks longer in case McKay takes off.

With multiple running threats, Patterson said opponents use coverages more favorable to MSU’s passing game. He’s even noticed opposing secondaries look to the offensive backfield in case McKay runs, which could make them lose sight of the wide receivers.

“Matt’s mobility has just elevated our game completely,” Patterson said.

McKay’s rushing potential leaves other facets of MSU’s offense open. If teams focus too much on him, Ifanse can take advantage like he did against San Diego.

Ifanse has totaled 272 yards on 45 carries, an average of six yards per attempt, with two touchdowns.

“You’ve got to pick your poison. You’ve got to see which one do you want to stop today,” Patterson said. “Having Matt back there to break a couple runs will definitely help Isaiah take a couple less hits.”

Or McKay can find open receivers in man coverage, which has happened often in MSU’s first three games. He’s completed 66.7% of his passes (50 of 75) while throwing for 680 yards and seven touchdowns with no turnovers. Of MSU’s 62 first downs, 33 have been on passing plays.

Bobcats offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Taylor Housewright said “you have to look out” for the different ways MSU can attack a defense.

“We play off of each other,” Housewright said. “That’s kind of what you’re trying to do when you’re a good offense.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.

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