LARAMIE, Wyo. — In its first game since 2019, the Montana State football team was aggressive. The Bobcats’ strength and speed were on par with their higher-level opponent.

Against his former team, Brent Vigen nearly led the Bobcats in his first game as a head coach to an upset win over Wyoming, but the Cowboys scored 16 points in the final quarter for a 19-16 victory on Saturday at War Memorial Stadium.

Passing increase

When Vigen made the change from Cowboys offensive coordinator to MSU’s coach, he said the Bobcats likely wouldn’t change their identity. Under previous coach Jeff Choate, the Bobcats relied heavily on a potent rushing attack.

And because of his time at Wyoming and North Dakota State, that seemed to align with Vigen’s philosophy. For example, the Cowboys ran the ball 64% of the time in his final season there.

But that was not the case in MSU’s season opener. In his first game since transferring from North Carolina State, Matthew McKay threw early and often. In the first quarter alone, he completed 8 of 11 passes for 65 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, the Bobcats ran just five times.

“Just taking the opportunities when they present themselves,” McKay said. “My job is to just execute.”

McKay completed 19 of 28 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.

“Certainly some good. Wasn’t perfect by any means. I like how he responded, putting us in a go-ahead drive and making some plays within it,” Vigen said. “I know his capacity to improve will be there, his capacity where he’s making all the right decisions will be there."

However, the Bobcats became more balanced later. Isaiah Ifanse, MSU’s junior running back who entered the contest as the program’s 13th career leading rusher, didn’t record a carry until the second quarter. In fact, he caught two passes before that point.

Then the Bobcats turned to Ifanse and McKay more often on the ground. Ifanse ran 16 times for 103 yards and recorded three catches for 33 yards.

Montana State Bobcats football

Montana State's Matthew McKay eludes Wyoming's Esaias Gandy at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday in Laramie, Wyo.

Bozeman’s McCutcheon a favorite target

Bozeman product and senior wide receiver Lance McCutcheon was the beneficiary of that uptick in passing. McKay threw deep to McCutcheon along the right sideline on the very first snap. Though it fell incomplete, McKay didn’t shy away after that.

In the opening quarter alone, McCutcheon was targeted five times. The Bobcats clearly favored his matchup with Cowboys cornerback CJ Coldon and intended to give him the ball plenty of times.

“Lance will be and is a playmaker for us,” Vigen said. “He’s a tough matchup both with his ability, his size. … He’s going to be a guy we can go to time after time as we go through the season.”

Less than four minutes into the game, Montana State safety Jeffrey Manning intercepted a pass by Wyoming’s Sean Chambers and returned it to the Cowboys’ 15. The very next play, McKay located McCutcheon along the sideline one-on-one with Coldon. Despite the defense, McKay trusted McCutcheon, and the former Bozeman Hawk delivered with a 15-yard touchdown. This gave the Bobcats the lead until the fourth quarter.

“Just taking advantage of the opportunities,” McCutcheon said. “With Jeff picking that off, it gave us a lot of momentum in that first quarter. Going out on the next play and being able to capitalize was huge for us.”

McCutcheon also made an outstanding one-handed catch in the fourth quarter to set up MSU’s go-ahead touchdown. He ended the game with 71 yards on five catches.

“Definitely a playmaker,” McKay said. “He’s a hard worker, and when he’s out there, he makes plays.”

Montana State Bobcats football

Montana State's Lance McCutcheon celebrates after a long catch against the Wyoming Cowboys at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday in Laramie, Wyo.

Defensively stout with depth

Though the Bobcats were wary of Wyoming’s experience and size up front, they were clearly up to the challenge from the beginning.

Wyoming couldn’t rely on its running attack as much as it has before. The Bobcats were strong enough to plug up rushing lanes, especially early.

Cowboys coach Craig Bohl admitted Wyoming could’ve played better at the line of scrimmage. He thought the Cowboys would have a “huge advantage” but didn’t feel that way after leaving the game.

Bobcats defensive end Daniel Hardy, who recorded one of the team’s two sacks, said he felt confident about the depth of the position.

“They’re bigger guys than we are, so the only thing I can attribute it to is technique,” Hardy said. “It’s just trusting the coaches, trusting what they’re telling us."

About 10 defensive linemen were involved in the game, a sign of Vigen’s trust in the depth of the position. He said that was the plan and that the defensive line is the key to that side of the ball. The Bobcats ended up allowing just 151 rushing yards for the game.

“I thought we would have a chance to be disruptive,” Vigen said. “I didn’t think there was an area where we would have this glaring mismatch. I think our guys believe that. That wasn’t wishful thinking. It was evident we belonged out there.”

The Bobcats were also without senior nickelback Tyrel Thomas but felt confident in their young talent. Chambers ended up 15 for 26 for 196 yards with a touchdown and threw the interception to Manning that set up the touchdown by McCutcheon.

Montana State Bobcats football

Montana State's Troy Andersen tackles Wyoming's Isaiah Neyor at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday in Laramie, Wyo.

Pickering makes clutch plays

Treyton Pickering wasn’t listed on the depth chart for Montana State. But he made one of the most important plays of the game.

The Bobcats sophomore tight end from Sunburst caught a go-ahead touchdown pass in the back of the end zone with 2:17 to play. MSU led Wyoming 16-12 at that point.

“It was amazing,” McKay said, adding that he thought that touchdown would be enough to win the game.

Vigen had praised Pickering as one of many tight ends who impressed during fall camp. On Saturday, Pickering stood out. He caught all three of his targets for 31 yards, including a 20-yarder down the middle on the drive that set up his score.

He said family friends drove a long distance to see him play.

“Coming from a small town of like 300 people, that was pretty special to the people I had come from my town,” Pickering said. “It was just really cool to experience that coming from a small town. It was a blast.”

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

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