BOZEMAN — There’s no doubt Ron Ueland would have been in his element watching Montana State’s 26-23 victory over Western Illinois on Thursday — not for the final outcome but for the way the Bobcats pulled it off.
Before he became a titan of business and industry in Butte and across the state, Ueland was a giant on the football field at MSU, where he carved out a hall of fame career as a linebacker for legendary coach Sonny Holland from 1971-73.
In May, Ueland died of a heart attack at his ranch house west of Butte. He was 65.
The Bobcats beat WIU on Thursday with the kind of defensive grit for which Ueland was renowned, stuffing the Leathernecks on their final drive.
It was fitting, too, because Ueland’s memory was honored Thursday night as part of a pregame tribute on the field.
“Amazing guy. Really one of the most amazing guys, notwithstanding being a great teammate and a great football player,” said Bozeman’s Brad Daws, a former Bobcat defensive end who played with Ueland in 1973. “Montana work ethic. Butte work ethic. He cared about this state, this university and his hometown.”
Ueland was a first team All-Big Sky Conference performer in both 1972 and 1973, and was also named as an All-American following his senior season.
The Bobcats won a national championship in 1976 after Ueland left the program, but Daws said the Butte Central High School graduate helped lay a foundation for that magical season.
“Sonny would say it,” Daws explained. “Montana State football changed when they signed Ron Ueland. It changed the whole dynamic. We started getting players from Butte, and at that time that was important.
“It’s like anything else, as coach Holland was trying to rebuild this program, you have to lay a base layer and then you start adding to that foundation. Ron Ueland was certainly that foundation.”
Ueland went on to lead several successful ventures in agribusiness and for years advocated for enterprise and development in Butte.
The No. 50 jersey that Ueland wore is being held out of commission at MSU this season as a further nod to his “Butte Tough” impact.
“Ron was a Butte native, Bobcat great, family man and philanthropist,” MSU coach Jeff Choate was quoted earlier this year. “All Montanans will miss his leadership.”
In replacing Chris Murray at quarterback, Troy Andersen had a somewhat Murray-like stat line against Western Illinois.
After throwing for just four yards in the first half, Andersen finished 12 for 21 (57 percent) for 81 yards. He threw one second-half interception. Andersen rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
Last season, Murray’s per game averages were this: 11-for-21 passing (52 percent) and 145 yards to go along with 102 rushing yards.
One difference, perhaps, is that Andersen was able to command two long second-half drives — in terms of either yardage or number of snaps — that resulted in crucial points.
MSU drove 81 yards in eight plays, capped by a 14-yard Andersen touchdown run. Later, it was an 11-play, 41-yard march that resulted in a 50-yard field goal by Tristan Bailey, which tied the game 23-23. That was one of four field goals Bailey made.
After playing quarterback for the first time as a Bobcat, Andersen indicated that he felt more comfortable in the second half after an erratic start. The 81-yard scoring drive came right out of the gate after halftime.
“It was cool. The atmosphere was definitely electric,” said Andersen, who won the QB competition to replace the academically ineligible Murray in fall camp.
“We just needed to get that first first down (of the second half), and once we get that first down we can really start rolling. Once we did that in the second half it kind of flowed a lot better.”
Turning it loose
Of all the debuts — be it Andersen at quarterback or Bailey at kicker — Bryce Sterk’s first showing as the Bobcats’ pass-rushing end was the most physically impressive.
Sterk, a University of Washington dropdown who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 250 pounds, showed a quick first step and the ability to crash the pocket either off the edge or from twists and stunts. With defensive end Tyrone Fa’anono doing his part on the other side of the line, it was perhaps MSU’s best single-game 1-2 punch up front since the days of Buck Buchanan Award winners Caleb Schreibeis and Brad Daly in the early part of this decade.
As a defense, the Bobcats finished with four sacks (Sterk had two) and nine tackles for loss (Sterk had four). It also helped produce two interceptions by the secondary.
It was Sterk’s sack of Sean McGuire on fourth down in the waning minutes that preserved the win.
“I thought Bryce kind of found out what he’s capable of,” Choate said. “I think he was still kind of easing into it a little bit. And when he turns it loose, man, he’s something. So he did a really nice job.
“But I think the guy for us that really held it together was Tyrone Fa’anono, just with his leadership and his energy and his playmaking ability in critical moments in the game.”
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