BOZEMAN — Montana State begins the 2018 football season with internal expectations much higher than the eighth-place prediction it garnered with the release of both the Big Sky Conference media and coaches polls in July.
“We were picked eighth in our league. Let’s just call it what it is,” third-year coach Jeff Choate said. “I think that says what people think about where we’re at, and I think we’ve got an opportunity to go show the strides that we’ve made.”
MSU was one of the best rushing teams in the Big Sky in Choate’s first two seasons — they led the league at nearly 250 yards per game in 2017 — but the passing game has been a perpetual work in progress.
With the loss of quarterback Chris Murray to academic ineligibility after spring drills, the Bobcats are expected to turn to Troy Andersen and former Oregon recruit Travis Jonsen to ignite the passing game — with the help of new quarterbacks coach Bob Cole.
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Defensively, a slew of transfers have arrived, including rush ends Bryce Sterk and Dante Sparaco from Washington and Colorado, respectively. Cornerback Greg Filer III and safety Jahque Alleyne, another pair of newcomers, look to boost the secondary.
MSU opens the season Thursday at home against Western Illinois. Here, then, is a capsule preview of the upcoming campaign:
And the quarterback is …
Montana State will turn to a new QB in 2018 now that Murray is out. Five contestants entered fall camp: Andersen, Jonsen, Tucker Rovig, Casey Bauman and Ruben Beltran. Andersen and Jonsen are both listed No. 1 on the Week 1 depth chart. Jonsen spent parts of camp working at wide receiver.
Whoever emerges will be called upon to manage the offense and generate an increase in passing production. Murray completed just 49.4 percent of his throws in 22 games.
Cheer: Sept. 8 at South Dakota State. The Bobcats are looking to atone for last year’s loss to SDSU, a 31-27 defeat in which the Jackrabbits scored a touchdown late in the fourth quarter on a fake field goal. SDSU made it all the way to the playoff semifinals in 2017, and are ranked No. 3 in the nation heading into Week 1.
Jeer: Oct. 13 vs. Idaho. After a two-decade run in the FBS, the Vandals are making their return to the Big Sky Conference. This will be their first game in Bozeman since 1995. With a roster full of (presumably) higher-tier recruits, will Idaho be better than expected? UI was picked to place no higher than fourth in the preseason polls.
Gotta see this one
Nov. 17 at Montana: Of course. It’s the biggest game of the year, every year. The 118th meeting between the Cats and Griz returns to Missoula, where MSU prevailed two years ago 24-17. The rivalry received an added jolt in December when Bobby Hauck was re-hired to coach the Grizzlies. Hauck went 5-2 against the Bobcats in his previous tenure. Choate is 2-0 vs. UM so far.
The Bobcats improved by one game in Choate’s second season, so it’s not too much to expect them to take another step forward. They may contend for a playoff berth if things fall their way. It's a tough schedule, though: MSU plays four of the top five teams ranked in the league’s preseason polls, and two of its three nonconference opponents were playoff teams last year. Prediction: 7-4
“We were not very good at getting after the quarterback, and that was a symptom of two things: We didn’t bring a lot of pressure by design because we didn’t have a lot of confidence in our secondary’s ability to play tight man, and we didn’t want to give up the big play. We feel a little bit better about our secondary and we can get after it with our front a little bit more. I think we’ve got a little bit more talent and a little bit more juice on the edge.” – Jeff Choate
“I think our offensive line this year is going to be really strong. They have been in the past with our run game being so dominant. And we have receivers who are ready to step up and make plays. They worked really hard this summer, a lot of guys like Lance McCutcheon, Coy Steel, Willie Patterson and Kevin Kassis, I think they’re going to be really good for us.” – Troy Andersen
Head coach: Jeff Choate
Record at school: 9-13 (.409)
Career record: 9-13 (.409)
The Bobcats haven’t began a season with a victory since 2015, which was also the last time they opened on a Thursday at home. … If Andersen starts at QB in Week 1, it will be the third position at which he’s started in 12 career games. … LB Jacob Hadley is set to play in his first game in nearly two years. Due to injuries, Hadley hasn’t suited up since early in the 2016 season. … True freshmen RBs Isaiah Ifanse and Lane Sumner could both factor into MSU’s running game, prominently, perhaps, at least early in the season as Logan Jones and Tyler Natee nurse injuries. … Choate said 30 QB sacks is a realistic number for his defense. It had just 32 combined in the past two years.
Battle tested: Choate’s first two seasons were a pressure cooker: The Bobcats played in 13 games that were decided by one possession and in 16 games that were decided in the fourth quarter. Still, they won just nine total games in that stretch. Can MSU reverse its fortunes in a new season?
Veteran guidance: The one word the coaches and players have used to describe first-year QBs coach Bob Cole is simplicity. Cole, a veteran of 35 college football seasons, has tried to keep the passing schemes clear and understandable for his quarterbacks. Time will tell if that approach pays off.
Best five: Choate has said that MSU’s top offensive line combination is that of left tackle Mitch Brott, left guard Taylor Tuiasosopo, center Alex Neale, right guard Lewis Kidd and right tackle Connor Wood, and that is the lineup on the Week 1 depth chart. Brott is moving from right to left tackle this year. Zach Redd, meanwhile, can play both center and guard.
Affect the QB: The arrival of Sterk and Sparaco, coupled with DEs Tyrone Fa’anono and Derek Marks as well as interior linemen Tucker Yates and Zach Wright, provide hope that the defense can get to the quarterback more often. That idea is complemented by the notion that MSU will play tighter single coverage in the secondary with Tyrel Thomas, Jalen Cole, Damien Washington and Greg Filer III at cornerback.
Montana State Bobcats
All-time record: 496-487-32 (.489)
Big Sky record: 189-179-1 (.512)
National titles won: 1956, 1976, 1984
Last playoff appearance: 2014 vs. South Dakota State (L, 47-40)
Offensive scheme: Spread option
Defensive scheme: 3-4 multiple
(5-6, 5-3 Big Sky)
Sept. 2: at Washington St., L, 31-0
Sept. 9: South Dakota St., L, 31-27
Sept. 23: at North Dakota, W, 49-21
Sept. 30: Weber St., L, 25-17
Oct. 7: Portland St., W, 30-22
Oct. 14: at Eastern Washington, L, 31-19
Oct. 21: at Northern Colorado, W, 27-24
Oct. 28: Idaho St., W, 28-14
Nov. 4: Kennesaw St., L, 16-14
Nov. 11: at Northern Arizona, L, 37-36
Nov. 18: Montana, W, 31-23
(All times Mountain)
Aug. 30: Western Illinois, 7 p.m.
Sept. 8: at South Dakota St., 5 p.m.
Sept. 15: Wagner, 1 p.m
Sept. 22: at Portland St., 3 p.m.
Sept. 29: Eastern Washington, 1 p.m.
Oct. 6: Bye
Oct. 13: Idaho, 2 p.m.
Oc. 20: at Weber St., 4 p.m.
Oct. 27: at Idaho St., 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 3: Cal Poly, 2 p.m.
Nov. 10: Northern Colorado, 1 p.m.
Nov. 17: at Montana, noon
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