BOZEMAN — There weren’t a ton of positives Montana State coach Jeff Choate took away from his team’s most recent outing — a 34-21 homecoming loss to upstart Sacramento State on Oct. 12.
The Bobcats either became too predictable with their running game, failed to consistently execute their assignments on defense (especially on third down) or squandered crucial scoring opportunities in the second half.
Despite the loss, one highlight Choate pointed to was the play of quarterback Tucker Rovig.
“I thought Tucker operated well,” Choate said. “It was probably his best game. He had a couple drops and a couple throws he might like to have back, but I thought he made better decisions.”
Rovig finished with 262 passing yards and a touchdown, but he came flustered by the Hornets’ defensive pressure and was sacked four times. He was hit in the pocket while throwing down the field on MSU’s first possession and the ball fluttered into the arms of a waiting defender, which killed a promising drive.
It was a play Rovig said was an early turning point.
The loss snapped a five-game winning streak, and it was not the way MSU envisioned it would go into its bye.
Despite Choate’s reassurances, Rovig, a sophomore from Meridian, Idaho, said the setback to Sacramento State stung.
“It was with me for two weeks,” he said.
If you take the statistics at face value, Rovig has been more than functional for MSU since taking over the starting quarterback job from Casey Bauman before a Week 4 matchup with Norfolk State. To date, Rovig has completed 59% of his throws (62 of 105) for 756 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
Like everyone else on the team, Rovig took stock in self-evaluation during the bye week, especially with a quality opponent like North Dakota looming on Saturday.
“I think there’s a lot of room for improvement, that’s for sure,” Rovig said of his performance so far. “There’s some things I’ve done that, yeah, I’m pleased with, but I also see a lot of plays out there that I wish I could have made that I’m really focused on making in the second half of the season.”
Included in his growth, he said, is the need to keep confidence in his teammates’ ability to do their jobs on a given play, and to have faith in the calls the coaches make in a given situation.
Rovig is simply trying to play within the framework of the game plan — which typically relies on him to manage an offense built around its diverse running game that is used to set up the passing game.
“Just execute the play call. Don’t do too much,” Rovig said. “I’ve got guys on the perimeter and behind me at running back, and the guys on the offensive line are going to execute and make me look good. So just trust the play call and do what I need to do.”
One area in which Rovig admits he and the offense need to be better is in third-down situations, and the stats bear that out. Entering this week, Montana State ranks last in the Big Sky Conference in third-down conversions at 31.7% (32 of 101).
For Rovig, the answer is clear.
“The big thing with that is just the emphasis on first and second down,” he said. “You need to have successful first and second downs to get the third down.
“We’ve had way too many third-and-longs and third-and-extra-longs. That all comes down to first and second down and making it third-and-manageable.”
And that, it seems, comes down to the Bobcats’ running game returning to form this week and erasing what was an uncharacteristic effort against Sacramento State’s stout defensive front.
Montana State still boasts the No. 2-ranked ground attack in the Big Sky Conference, but it was stymied against the Hornets and produced 120 fewer yards than its per-game average. Still, things won't get easier at this time of year.
Choate said North Dakota’s defense “create(s) a lot of problems for you because of their pre- and post-snap movement. They’ll stem a bunch pre-snap, and then post-snap they’re going to do a lot of stunting and looping.
“You get into a pass game against them … you don’t want to do that. They’re going to get their hits on the quarterback (and) they’re going to create problems. They don’t give up a ton of big plays. You’ve got to earn it against this group.”
Despite the loss to Sacramento State, the No. 9-ranked Bobcats (5-2, 2-1 Big Sky) still like where they’re positioned near the top of the league standings.
But they also know a slip-up this week would be detrimental.
It’s certainly not lost on Rovig.
“This is where the games really matter,” he said. “They definitely matter in the first half of the season, but this is where they really count toward the playoffs.”