Jeff Choate

Montana State football coach Jeff Choate celebrates near the end of a 48-14 victory over Montana on Nov. 23 in Bozeman.

BOZEMAN — Kevin Kassis has spent the better part of four years redefining the term “good-hands man.”

With each diving catch and improbable snag, the senior receiver from El Dorado, California, has been one of Montana State’s most important players, a mainstay in coach Jeff Choate’s plan to turn the Bobcats into a contender in the Big Sky Conference and beyond.

Kassis played as a true freshman and has been there from the beginning of this operation, and has seen the program grow from a four-win outfit in Choate’s first season in 2016 to earning the right to host a quarterfinal playoff game Friday night against Austin Peay.

Kassis is having so much fun now that he doesn’t want to see any of this come to an end — whenever that may be.

“The hourglass is just about out of sand, and you’ve got to keep putting sand in if you want to keep playing and if you want to buy yourself some more time,” said Kassis, invoking an analogy for MSU’s hunger to play a great game this week in order to advance further in the postseason.

“I just want to win for this group of seniors and these young guys to establish what’s expected here. I want to win for my fellow seniors who have endured this building process. We’re at the point now where we can really turn some heads.”

Montana State is dangerous again on the national stage, not unlike in 2011 and 2012 under previous coach Rob Ash when the Bobcats won 21 games, two Big Sky titles and made consecutive trips to the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.

In spite of those achievements, the Bobcats are still trying to advance to the semifinals for the first time since 1984, a milestone year that produced the program’s most recent national championship.

But that seems like ancient history. So a win over Austin Peay under Friday night lights would accomplish a big goal, one that would certainly be seen as a landmark moment of the Choate era.

When Choate replaced Ash prior to the 2016 season, he wasn’t quite sure how long the process of instilling his style and values would take. The Bobcats went a combined 9-13 in Choate’s first two years, suffering through countless close-game defeats before sneaking into the playoffs last season.

Quarterbacks and assistant coaches (to a certain degree) came and went as things slowly started to come together. Four consecutive victories over rival Montana obviously helped.

But the sum of this season has been the biggest payoff.

“I probably thought I had way more answers than I really had,” Choate said this week. “When you get a job it’s like getting a present, and you open it up and it’s not exactly what you thought it was going to be. That’s kind of how I’d describe this.

“Montana State had had a nice run here, and you’re thinking from the outside looking in we’ve got a pretty good thing going. But there were some things that we needed to fix. And once I realized that, I didn’t know how fast it was going to happen.

“I knew there was not going to be a quick fix because I — my failure — couldn’t go out and find that quarterback that we could just plug in and go, which can fix a lot of things. But what’s ironic about it is, I think this program is now built for the long haul because of it.”

The Bobcats (10-3) are the No. 5 seed for the playoffs. Winners of five straight games, they are coming off a 47-21 second-round rout of Albany after earning a first-round bye.

Tucker Rovig, who continues to give MSU the stability it’s been seeking at quarterback for so long, threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns while Travis Jonsen, Isaiah Ifanse and Logan Jones each scored on the ground.

Not to be outdone, Kassis again showed off his ever-reliable hands. He achieved a career-high in single-game receptions (11), had 131 yards and caught a touchdown in what was perhaps the team’s most balanced outing on offense.

Defensively, MSU has allowed 20-plus points just once in its past five games.

It’s easy to see that the Bobcats are playing their best and most-consistent football at the perfect time of the year, all without their best player — linebacker/wildcat quarterback Troy Andersen — who has been sidelined with injuries.

“We talk about how in the short run you may not get what you want right away and things might not turn out the way you hoped, but in the long run it pays off,” Kassis said. “That’s why we put trust in this coaching staff and believed in the program. It’s rewarding now. We’re in a great situation.”

Choate was asked this week what he considers the greatest strength of his team.

“The word you said — team,” he replied. “They care about each other. They’re not really interested in who gets credit, just what the scoreboard says at the end of the game.

“And I really believe that’s the strength of our team, our togetherness, our oneness, and I think that’s shown.”

But in the playoffs, nothing’s guaranteed.

Austin Peay (11-3) is perhaps the biggest surprise of the current postseason field — of which only eight remain — especially after knocking off co-Big Sky Conference champion Sacramento State 42-28 on a rainy night on the road last week.

The Governors, led by first-year coach Mark Hudspeth and a dynamic senior quarterback in JaVaughn Craig, have just as much incentive to keep their season alive. The Ohio Valley Conference champs have won seven straight games already. Why stop now?

“They probably have a lot of confidence in coach Hud and his ability to lead them, and that provides them with confidence,” Choate said. “I’m sure they’re saying it doesn’t matter if it’s snowing, doesn’t matter if it’s raining, we’ll go play anybody, anytime, anywhere.

“And that would be the mindset that I would take, as well.”

The Bobcats hope the numbers on the scoreboard are in their favor at the end of the game Friday night, and that they can put more sand in the hourglass of their season.

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Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac

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