Montana State at Eastern Washington

Montana State's Isaiah Ifanse finds a whole as teammates Zach Redd (59) and Dylan Porter block during Saturday's game at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.

CHENEY, Wash. — A result of a battle between top-five teams was fittingly not clear until the final minutes.

But after taking the lead in the first half, No. 4-ranked Montana State (8-1, 6-0 Big Sky) won its eighth straight game 23-20 over No. 5 Eastern Washington (7-2, 4-2) on Saturday at Roos Field.

Here are three takeaways from the game.

Montana State head coach Brent Vigen talks to reporters about the No. 4 Bobcats' 23-20 win over No. 5 Eastern Washington on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.

With different lineup at offensive line, MSU dominates on the ground

Bobcats head coach Brent Vigen said earlier in the week his team was the healthiest it was all season. Defensive tackle Chase Benson, linebacker Callahan O’Reilly, offensive tackle TJ Session, defensive back Tyrel Thomas, cornerback James Campbell and wide receiver Nate Stewart were all back after missing MSU’s previous game.

But the Bobcats were without senior offensive guard Taylor Tuiasosopo, a preseason all-conference pick who made the trip for the game. In his place, sophomore Joe McElroy, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound sophomore and Missoula Loyola graduate, made his first career start. Dylan Porter, a 6-5, 305-pound junior from Elmira, Oregon, played a majority of the game at guard.

Behind MSU’s third offensive line combination in as many games, Isaiah Ifanse remained stellar. The junior running back — a Bellevue, Washington, product playing back in his home state — rushed for 217 yards on 32 attempts.

Montana State offensive lineman Lewis Kidd talks to reporters about the No. 4 Bobcats' 23-20 win over No. 5 Eastern Washington on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.

That’s his sixth 100-yard game of the season and 15th of his career. It’s also his third 200-yard game during his time at MSU.

With less than 12 minutes to go, Ifanse capped a two-play, 95-yard drive as he stiff-armed a defender on the way to a 43-yard touchdown. This gave the Bobcats a 10-point lead.

With 907 yards for the season going into the game, Ifanse reached the 1,000-yard milestone for the second season in his career. He also reached the top five among MSU’s all-time leading rushers.

MSU does damage on explosive plays

Vigen emphasized dominating time of possession, therefore keeping star EWU quarterback Eric Barriere off the field, would be crucial. And thanks to Ifanse, the Bobcats had the ball for 10 more minutes than EWU did.

But early on, the Bobcats thrived on offense due to explosive plays.

Matthew McKay gave the Bobcats the first lead of the game when he took off for a 56-yard rushing touchdown less than three minutes into the contest on their first offensive possession. McKay finished 17 of 30 for 253 yards, one touchdown and one interception while running for 65 yards on nine carries.

Montana State quarterback Matthew McKay talks to reporters about the No. 4 Bobcats' 23-20 win over No. 5 Eastern Washington on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.

Eastern Washington scored a pair of touchdowns soon afterward to take the lead. The Bobcats answered on a deep throw from McKay to Lance McCutcheon.

McKay targeted McCutcheon in one-on-one coverage. McCutcheon, a senior wide receiver from Bozeman, made an acrobatic grab. He then eluded his defender, zoomed down the left sideline, spun away from another Eagle and reached the end zone.

The 67-yard completion was MSU’s longest pass play of the season. McCutcheon also caught a 52-yard pass to set up Ifanse’s touchdown in the fourth quarter.

McCutcheon, the second-leading receiver in the Big Sky with 663 yards going into the game, finished with five catches, 150 yards and his score.

Penalties hurt the Bobcats

Going into the contest, MSU was the least penalized team in the conference, having committed 32. But the Bobcats didn’t help themselves in that area Saturday.

Just five minutes into the game, Elijah Elliott returned a kickoff for a touchdown following EWU’s second score of the game. The play would’ve given MSU the lead immediately back after just losing it.

The play was waved off. An illegal block forced the Bobcats to start the drive from their own 11.

Near the end of the opening quarter, Willie Patterson caught a pass from McKay on third down and 7 yards to go deep in EWU territory. Patterson gestured for the first down he had just earned and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Patterson and the Bobcats have committed several such penalties this season.

This set MSU back, and the possession eventually led to a missed field goal by Blake Glessner.

The Bobcats were flagged six times and lost 65 yards.

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

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