Brayden Konkol

Montana State is looking to improve from an eight-win season in 2018, which included the program's first playoff victory in six years.

BOZEMAN — Expectations have grown with each passing year of Jeff Choate’s tenure as coach at Montana State. Naturally, with this being Choate’s fourth season at the helm, there’s a sense that the 2019 Bobcats can compete at the top of the Big Sky Conference due to the positional depth that’s been cultivated on defense and a confluence of weapons they possess on offense.

Externally, the prognostications are that MSU will have a good year: The Bobcats were picked to finish in the top five of the Big Sky Conference by both the coaches and the media, and are slotted No. 14 in the STATS FCS preseason Top 25 poll.

Internally, the team believes this season could be even more special.

“I think everyone in this program believes we can compete for a championship,” senior safety Brayden Konkol said.

“When coach Choate first got here he said it was going to take four years — the first year we’d lose big, the next year lose small, the third year win small and then the fourth year win big. I think the last three years we’ve done exactly what he said.

“This is the year to win big, and I think we’ve got the talent to do it, we’ve got the coaches to do it, and we’ve got the leadership to do it. So I’m super excited about this year’s team.”

MSU opens the season next Saturday on the road at FBS Texas Tech. Following is a capsule preview of the Bobcats’ 2019 campaign:

Extra point

For the Bobcats to perform to the level they hope each week, a lot must go right, from staying healthy to winning the turnover battle to being better on third down both offensively and defensively. But a lot is also riding on the shoulders of redshirt freshman quarterback Casey Bauman, who takes over for QB-turned-linebacker Troy Andersen and will make his first career start at Texas Tech.

The talented yet unproven Bauman (6-7, 235) doesn’t need to be an all-conference performer right away for MSU to be successful. He just needs to operate efficiently and help create more balance by being the downfield passing threat the Bobcats have lacked. The offense will again be diverse, with running back Isaiah Ifanse, Andersen, receiver Travis Jonsen and others being asked to make plays out of the backfield.

Choate said the Bobcats will probably run the ball upwards of 500 times this year, which should make Bauman’s life easier.

Upset special

Cheer: Nov. 16 at UC Davis. It’s not inconceivable to suggest the Bobcats will be 6-0 in conference play when they step on the field at UC Davis Health Stadium for the penultimate game of the regular season. If that’s the case, they will be in contention for the league crown. Davis won 10 games last season and made a run to the playoff quarterfinals, and with QB Jake Maier returning is predicted to make another push for the Big Sky title. An MSU victory here would provide a big shot of momentum with archrival Montana visiting Bozeman the following week.

Jeer: Sept. 28 vs. Northern Arizona. The Bobcats open the Big Sky portion of their schedule at home against a Northern Arizona team beginning a new era under first-year coach Chris Ball. But there’s one familiar face that could make a huge difference in a season of transition: QB Case Cookus. Now a fifth-year senior, Cookus is a proven commodity and one of the top offensive players in the FCS when healthy. Plus, the Lumberjacks have had Montana State’s number of late; the Bobcats have dropped their last three against NAU.

Gotta see this one

Nov. 23 vs. Montana: The Bobcats haven’t won four straight games against the Grizzlies since a 20-3 triumph in 1975 (which was part of a six-year winning streak for MSU). Choate has yet to lose to Montana, and the previous three wins have laid a foundation for his program. Last year’s outcome, a 29-25 win in Missoula that was preserved on a dramatic goal-line stand in the final seconds, remains fresh in the minds of UM coach Bobby Hauck and his players. A playoff berth was on the line last season. What will be at stake this year at Bobcat Stadium?

Crystal ball

MSU’s schedule looks favorable on paper. The Bobcats don’t play Eastern Washington or Weber State, and their nonconference games are winnable (with the exception, the odds say, of Texas Tech). Expectations are as high as they’ve been under Choate, especially coming off an eight-win campaign and a playoff berth. There’s roster depth across the board. If MSU stays relatively healthy, if Bauman can manage the offense without a rash of turnovers and if the defense can improve in key situations like third downs, the Bobcats should make another run at a playoff berth — if not some Big Sky hardware. Prediction: 9-3

Quotebook

“It’s noticeably different. It just feels different too, just how we practice and the culture. I think that’s probably the main thing, the culture. We used to have fights at practice quite a bit because (we were) undisciplined, and it wasted a lot of time. We come out now and, like coach said, we’re like pros right now. Guys really take that to heart and we get our work done. I think it’s a culture change, and we’re in a different solar system than we were back then. Hopefully going forward that’s what it stays like.” — WR Kevin Kassis on the progression of the program

“We’re going to do what we have to do to win, and if that means (No.) 15’s carrying the ball, 15’s carrying the ball. And we’ll put Daniel Hardy off the edge and we’ll be fine. I think we’ve got enough depth at the linebacker position. I think it’s Troy’s natural position — I really believe that. But I also think he’s such a unique and special talent that we’ve got to make other teams defend him.” — Head coach Jeff Choate on Troy Andersen’s role

“I love our run fits. I love the way our linebackers are coming down hill and taking some blocks off us. Now it’s on us up front to get off our 1 on 1s and make a play. I always tell those guys, if you’re going to go 1 for 1 you better make the play. There’s an old saying on the D-line: Sacrifice your body, glorify your linebacker. And our guys have bought into that. We’re going to leverage our gaps up front, try to plug those holes and hopefully our linebackers are flying downhill to make plays.” — Assistant coach Byron Hout on the defensive line

Coach’s corner

Head coach: Jeff Choate (4th year)

Age: 49

Record at school: 17-18 (.486)

Career record: 17-18 (.486)

Three-dot data

Bauman is set to become MSU’s fifth different Week 1 starter at QB in the past five seasons, following Dakota Prukop (2015), Tyler Bruggman (2016), Chris Murray (2017) and Andersen (2018). … Left tackle Mitch Brott has made 35 consecutive starts on the offensive line. … Choate said midway through fall camp that he was “doubtful” that WR Jabarri Johnson could have an on-field role. Johnson has spent more than a year recovering from a debilitating knee injury. … Three University of Washington transfers look to bring a big collective impact to the defensive front seven: end Bryce Sterk, nose Jason Scrempos and edge defender Amandre Williams. … Andersen is four rushing TDs away from breaking into the top two in program history. … The Bobcats have lost just seven fumbles in their last 24 games. The team was plus-10 in turnover margin last season, which ranked in a tie for first in the Big Sky.

Four-down territory

Lining them up: The Bobcats are banking on the notion that their linebackers will perform markedly better than last season, especially with Andersen joining the group as a strong-side edge presence. As of now, the unit is gushing with depth, though some of it is unproven. As many as seven guys are fighting for playing time at the two inside positions: Michael Jobman, Chad Kanow, Walker Cozzie, Josh Hill, Nolan Askelson, Callahan O’Reilly and transfer Blake Flovin. They should all have a role, whether on defense or special teams.

Man of Troy: Linebacker will be Andersen’s third primary position in three seasons. As a true freshman running back in 2017, Andersen rushed for 515 yards and five touchdowns, and then piled up 1,412 rushing yards and accounted for 24 TDs at quarterback last year. Though he’s expected to play a lot more on defense as a junior, Andersen is still likely to have an offensive presence as the Bobcats force opponents to account for his speed and power as a runner out of the backfield.

Rule of 3: Offenses converted 41.8% of their third-down plays last year against the Bobcats’ defense, which ranked MSU 10th in the Big Sky at the end of the season. Based on MSU’s turnover margin (plus-10) and its 23 QB sacks, it could be viewed as a statistical anomaly. Choate believes an improvement will go a long way. New coordinator Kane Ioane, who took over for the departed Ty Gregorak, knows this will be crucial in order for the Bobcats to take the next step defensively.

Well-received: A consistent downfield passing game has eluded the Bobcats in the Choate era, but the offense is hoping Bauman’s more traditional quarterbacking style can ignite it. MSU averaged just 140 passing yards per game in 2018. The wide receivers, under new position coach Erik Frazier, want to get more involved, though senior captain Kevin Kassis is coming off a 55-catch season. Jonsen, meanwhile, remains versatile and Lance McCutcheon has worked to become a more reliable deep threat.

Montana State Bobcats

All-time record: 504-492-32 (.490)

Big Sky record: 194-182-1 (.515)

National titles won: 1956, 1976, 1984

Last playoff game: 2018 at North Dakota State (L, 52-10)

Offensive scheme: Multiple

Defensive scheme: 3-4

2018 Results

(8-5, 5-3 Big Sky)

Aug. 30: Western Illinois, W, 26-23

Sept. 8: at South Dakota State, L, 45-14

Sept. 15: Wagner, W, 47-24

Sept. 22: at Portland State, W, 43-23

Sept. 29: Eastern Washington, L, 34-17

Oct. 5: Bye

Oct. 13: Idaho, W, 24-23

Oct. 20: at Weber State, L, 34-24

Oct. 27: at Idaho State, L, 24-17

Nov. 3: Cal Poly, W, 49-42

Nov. 10: Northern Colorado, W, 35-7

Nov. 17: at Montana, W, 29-25

Nov. 24: Incarnate Word, W, 35-14 *

Dec. 1: at North Dakota State, L, 52-10 *

*- FCS playoffs

2019 schedule

(All times Mountain)

Aug. 31: at Texas Tech, 2 p.m.

Sept. 7: Southeast Missouri State, 6 p.m.

Sept. 14: at Western Illinois, 2 p.m.

Sept. 21: at Norfolk State, 1 p.m.

Sept. 28: Northern Arizona, 1 p.m.

Oct. 5: at Cal Poly, 6 p.m.

Oct. 12: Sacramento State, 2 p.m.

Oct. 19: Bye

Oct. 26: at North Dakota, 11 a.m.

Nov. 2: Southern Utah, noon

Nov. 9: at Northern Colorado, noon

Nov. 16: at UC Davis, 5 p.m.

Nov. 23: Montana, noon

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

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