BOZEMAN — Fresh off a first-round bye — a week in which it focused on rest and recovery after a 12-game regular season — the Montana State football team is now firmly in the process of preparing for what’s next:
A second-round FCS playoff matchup against Albany on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
The satisfaction of a 34-point rout of rival Montana on Nov. 23 has, for the moment, faded into a residual memory. Now the fifth-seeded Bobcats are moving forward with the mentality of a team with its season hanging in the balance.
“I hope that we can approach this game exactly like we have our backs to the wall, because we do,” MSU coach Jeff Choate said Monday during his weekly news conference at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. “It’s win or go home. Playoff football.
“We’re not playing in whatever bowl game that we’ve had a month to prepare for and try to figure out if some of our kids have got one foot out the door. I just hope our kids are still hungry, which I think they are. I think the energy they had this morning showed that, and I think we’re excited to be able to play some more football.”
Montana State (9-3) has never played Albany (9-4). Their respective campuses reside roughly 2,200 miles apart, so there’s no familiarity or crossover between them.
But what Choate said he’s seen from the Great Danes during film study early this week is an offense that thrives on a strong running game and explosive plays down the field, and a defense that benefits from an ability to create sustained pressure up front.
Albany, an at-large playoff team from the Colonial Athletic Association, advanced to the second round with a 42-14 home blowout over Central Connecticut State last week. Freshman quarterback Jeff Undercuffler threw six touchdown passes in the victory.
It was Albany’s first ever postseason win, a high-water mark for the program under sixth-year coach Greg Gattuso.
“It just think it’s a really good, sound football team that very clearly deserves to be in the tournament with the way they played in Round 1,” Choate said. “I think it’s going to be a very challenging matchup for us on Saturday.”
It’s been a record-setting season at Albany.
Undercuffler (6-5, 230) has thrown for 3,270 and 39 touchdowns, both of which are single-season school marks. The Great Danes’ top receiver, Juwan Green (6-0, 187), now has 1,263 receiving yards and 16 TD catches, also tops in program history.
Edge defender Eli Mencer (6-1, 23) has made 14.5 quarterback sacks, another single-season record.
Meanwhile, running back Karl Mofor (5-8, 225) has 1,239 rushing yards, which lead the CAA.
The numbers are impressive, but it’s more than that.
Choate said Albany is “very much a team that I think plays with discipline. They make sure they do not beat themselves. They do not make a lot of mistakes, they do not give up a lot of explosives.
“They’re top 25 in the country in turnover margin (and) they don’t get penalized a lot. I think they’re just a very disciplined team, a very well-coached team.”
On a four-game winning streak, the Bobcats are trending in the right direction ahead of their second playoff appearance in as many years. And they’re doing it on the strength of their running game, which ranks No. 1 in the Big Sky Conference and seventh nationally at 270.1 yards per game.
MSU rushed for 382 yards against Montana, led by Isaiah Ifanse’s 171-yard, three-touchdown performance.
Choate said the process won’t change now that the playoffs are under way.
“We came in on Saturday and our guys had good energy. This morning they had good energy. Now it’s all about preparation, it’s all about digging in on the opponent and making sure we can play fast,” he said.
“I think there’s a tendency sometimes — you’re in the playoffs and it’s the second season, and you need to reinvent yourself. I think that’s something you’ve got to guard against. You don’t want to all of a sudden put too much in for an opponent and not be able to go operate at a high level.
“Right now this is about us finding out how we can best attack this team and do it in a way that’s not going to require too much thinking for our guys so we can go play fast.”
Saturday will mark Montana State’s 23rd all-time postseason game, and its 19th NCAA playoff contest.
The Bobcats are 10-8 in playoff games (7-8 at the FCS/Division I-AA level). Their most recent postseason win was a 35-14 home victory over Incarnate Word last November. MSU went on to lose 52-10 at eventual national champion North Dakota State the following week.