BOZEMAN — Montana State’s 34-28 overtime victory last week at Cal Poly was its fifth straight win, which is the program’s longest winning streak in six years.
But coach Jeff Choate is taking a cautious tone again this week as the No. 6-ranked Bobcats (5-1, 2-0 Big Sky) get set to host unranked Sacramento State (3-2, 1-0) for homecoming on Saturday.
“This should be a top 12, 15 team in my mind. At least,” Choate said Monday during his weekly news conference inside Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. “This is the best team that we’ve had come to this stadium this year for sure.”
“I think this is certainly the best FCS team that we've played,” he said. “They’re a complete team. I think this is one of the better teams in the country. I really believe that. And so we’re going to have our hands full, and I’ll have our guys’ attention this week.”
Sacramento State’s two losses came against FBS competition, but the Hornets held their own. They fell 19-7 on the road to Pac-12 Arizona State on Sept. 6 and fell 34-20 at Fresno State on Sept. 21. Both were tight games in the fourth quarter.
The Hornets, led by first-year coach Troy Taylor, won their Big Sky Conference opener last week at home, a 48-27 decision over Eastern Washington. They blasted Northern Colorado 50-0 at home on Sept. 14, which was a nonconference affair.
Having been picked to finish in the bottom tier of the league by both the coaches and the media in the preseason, the Hornets can be considered one of the Big Sky’s pleasant surprises, not unlike UC Davis was a year ago when it won 10 games and earned a share of the conference title.
“Every year in this league you’re going to have that team,” Choate said. “Last year I think it was kind of Cal Davis that came out of ‘nowhere’ and just emerged as a dominant force in this league, and certainly this year you can see that’s Sacramento State.
“When you’re (five) games into a season you can pretty much look at the stat sheet and see who a team is. So they’re one of the best teams in this league without a doubt.”
Sacramento State is ranked No. 1 in the Big Sky in scoring defense at 19.8 points allowed per game. It is No. 2 in scoring offense (40.4 ppg).
Hornets quarterback Kevin Thomson is one of the top passers in the Big Sky. He’s fired 16 touchdown passes and has been intercepted just three times while completing 63.8% of his throws. But he’s also a physical runner who can beat defenses on the ground.
Defensively, Sacramento State is bolstered by a solid front seven. Defensive end George Obinna ranks second in the conference (behind MSU’s Bryce Sterk) with four sacks.
Obinna is a sixth-year senior who played just two games last season due to injury. He is one of the leaders of Sac State’s front seven.
The Hornets’ defense is coordinated by Andy Thompson, a Big Sky Conference mainstay who spent a decade as the defensive coordinator at Northern Arizona before being hired by Sacramento State this past offseason. Thompson played linebacker at Montana in the early 2000s.
Their defensive line is coached by former Montana defensive coordinator Kraig Paulson, a Plentywood native who also starred for the Grizzlies as a player in the 1980s. Secondary coach Cherokee Valeria, meanwhile, spent the past seven seasons on the staff at Eastern Washington.
Taylor, formerly an offensive coordinator at Eastern Washington and later at Pac-12 Utah, has the Hornets buzzing in his first season as head coach.
“When you look at who they’ve played and where they’ve played them — they gave Arizona State, who is one of the better teams in the Pac-12 South, all they wanted,” Choate said. “And it was really a tie game going into the fourth quarter against Fresno State, a very good Mountain West team. And they’ve been dominant in each one of their Big Sky games.”
The Bobcats got a good bit of news on the injury front this week as senior cornerback Greg Filer reappeared on the depth chart. Filer, who had been out with an arm injury, is expected to play Saturday.
Filer was a preseason All-Big Sky Conference selection but was injured in fall camp and hasn’t played in a game yet this season.
“I think having him back and giving us some depth in the secondary will be huge,” Choate said. “Any time that you can get a guy that’s as good player as Greg back, it’s going to take (him) a little while to get into the flow of the game, but we’re excited to have him back in the mix.”