BOZEMAN — Nolan Askelson’s introduction to real-live college football was a bit of an awakening.
The redshirt freshman inside linebacker from Billings made his first career start last week in Montana State’s 45-10 loss at Texas Tech. Askelson, though worn down afterward, made four tackles and generally wasn’t disappointed with how he performed against the speed and skill of a Big 12 opponent.
“Going in I was pretty nervous,” Askelson, a Senior High School grad, said Tuesday. “My first college start against Big 12 team, it was definitely nerve-racking. Truth be told, I didn’t think I did too bad. I had a few tackles. I graded out pretty well.
“I think it was a good experience. It was a lot of fun. You never really get to play in an environment like that. Yeah, it was a loss, but they gave us a lot to work on, and I think that’s good. Moving forward, all the teams coming next are going to look tiny compared to those guys.”
The next challenge for No. 12 MSU is another tough one, although on a more even scale: A matchup with 12th-ranked Southeast Missouri of the Ohio Valley Conference in a marquee nonconference FCS matchup Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
The game, MSU’s Gold Rush home opener, is scheduled to kick off at 6 p.m., and will be broadcast statewide on SWX Montana stations.
For all the difficulties a team like SEMO presents — solid quarterback play, physical running backs, an attacking defense — there’s one outlier could have as much impact as anything else.
Yes, they’re always important, but at the rate Southeast Missouri’s defense takes the ball away, turnovers become even more magnified this week.
The Bobcats came out of the Texas Tech game plus-1 in turnover margin. MSU’s offense, with Casey Bauman making his first start at quarterback, didn’t give the ball away. Its defense, in turn, stole it once from the Red Raiders when safety Jahque Alleyne recovered a fumble for a touchback in the second quarter.
SEMO turned the ball over once and took it away once during its 44-26 victory over Southern Illinois in Week 1, but ranked No. 1 in the nation with a plus-24 rating last season, a number that figured greatly into a nine-win, playoff-qualifying campaign.
“They had 23 interceptions and 13 recovered fumbles. So that’s something that (was) obviously a huge part of their success a year ago, and they fed off of that,” Bobcats coach Jeff Choate said.
“They scored 144 points off takeaways last year. I think as you look at the game, that is definitely something to pay attention to. They’re not only aggressive in taking the ball away but they’re opportunistic on offense.”
One positive the Bobcats took away from the trip to Texas Tech is that Bauman, though inaccurate at times, didn’t throw an interception, and that the offense never put the ball on the ground.
The Bobcats finished last season in a tie for first place in the Big Sky Conference with a plus-10 turnover rating, a trend that began toward the end of the year. To continue it this week would be to put themselves in a good position.
“That’s going to be huge, definitely,” Askelson said. “On offense with us, with a redshirt freshman quarterback, that’s one of the thing you worry about is him giving the ball away. Obviously he did a great job last week and we didn’t have any turnovers, didn’t have any fumbles.
“On defense, the more possessions we can give to our offense and help them get into the flow of things, that’s definitely something we’re going to emphasize.”
Dating back to last season, Montana State’s defense has forced multiple turnovers in six of its past eight games.
Askelson noted the toughness that Southeast Missouri senior quarterback Daniel Santacaterina brings, calling him “a winner. He’s going to lead that team and they’re going to follow him.”
It’s a matter of how the Bobcats respond in a game between two teams ranked in the top 15 of the polls, which could loom large down the road.
MSU is aware of the implications.
“We started out in the preseason polls pretty high, so people had high expectations for us,” Askelson said. “Coming off of last week I think people might be thinking we’re not as good as they thought we were.
“I think we need to have a statement win. That’s a good team we played last week. We played them tough, we played them hard. The scoreboard might have looked a little lopsided, but we’re still a good team and we’re still here to compete for a championship.
“I think we need to send that out to everybody. We need a statement win and we need to win big this week.”