BOZEMAN — Ugly wins count just the same as the pretty ones, and if you ask Jeff Choate he’ll tell you: Any victory is better than the alternative.
That’s why Montana State’s fourth-year head coach felt a sense of relief about last week’s 23-14 triumph at Western Illinois. As Choate rightly pointed out, Hanson Field in Macomb, Illinois, is anything but an easy place to win. But the Bobcats overcame their mistakes to claim what was the first nonconference road victory of Choate’s MSU tenure.
Whether it’s due to the difficulty of the travel, the Midwest humidity, the distance between the field and the visiting locker room (it’s a hike) or the mundane gameday atmosphere, nonconference opponents had lost 12 straight games at WIU until the Bobcats ended that streak on Saturday.
The victory came with some spoils, too, as Montana State (2-1) rose two spots to No. 8 in this week’s STATS FCS Top 25 poll.
“Happy to get out of Macomb with a win. Really not excited to go back there any time soon,” Choate said Monday during his weekly news conference. “The planes, trains and automobiles to get there, five hours on the way back … tough place to play.
“I told people last spring this was a trap game. You know you’re going to have a great environment Week 2 at home, and then you’ve got to go there. And they are good at home, and now I know why. There is nothing easy about playing there. Nothing easy at all.”
The Bobcats didn’t make it easy on themselves, as Choate acknowledged. Penalties, offensive inconsistency and poor kickoff coverage contributed to MSU being unable to put the game away when it had the chance.
Montana State is now preparing to host Norfolk State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference this week, and cleaning up those lapses is a big priority.
“I don’t think we played our best football by any stretch of the imagination. It was a sloppy game,” Choate said of the win at WIU. “We had 12 penalties for 92 yards, but here’s the real story on those 12 penalties: It took away two touchdowns, a possession and 263 yards of field position. So that had a huge impact on this game.”
“The penalties that I’m angry about are the ones that are controllable. Offsides, roughing the punter, illegal formation, stuff like that,” Choate added. “I’m never going to take away our guys’ aggressiveness. If we get aggressive penalties, that means we’re playing the way we need to play.”
MSU’s running game was stifled for much of the day. It averaged 4.5 yards per rush, but a big chunk of that came on Logan Jones’ career-long 87-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter.
Quarterback Casey Bauman completed 16 of 30 passes for 149 yards. The offense had trouble moving the chains at times and finished 2 for 16 on third down.
“We had pre-snap penalties, we had negative plays on first downs, and that’s uncharacteristic,” Choate said. “Even on second downs when we’ve got easy throws and catches that can get us into a more manageable situation, I think that’s going to be a critical part of it too.”
Montana State’s defense, led by its front seven and another menacing effort by end Bryce Sterk, carried a lot of the weight by allowing just 56 rushing yards. The Bobcats also took the ball away twice, which means they have forced at least one turnover in 15 consecutive games.
As for kickoff coverage, MSU surrendered an average of 35 yards on four Western Illinois returns.
Choate indicated kickoff coverage will be a major point of emphasis as the team prepares for Norfolk State, saying he’s “not okay” with how that unit has performed so far.
“We had a pretty serious talk about kickoff coverage over the last two days, and not with anybody else besides those players,” Choate said. “I think there’s some effort things on the back side. I don’t think this is a personnel deal, I think it’s just relaxing and not playing hard. And if the head coach is questioning your effort, that’s a bad thing.
“If I don’t see vast improvement, I’ll accept responsibility for that going into league play. Like I told them, we can’t spot teams on the 40. That’s ridiculous. I don’t think it’s hang time or placement. I think Tristan (Bailey) is doing his job.
“I think we’re blunting the front side of it, but to the field side we haven’t been good enough. That’s purely an effort thing in my mind.”
The Bobcats’ No. 8 ranking matches their highest position in the national poll since the week of Oct. 28, 2014.
Saturday’s game against Norfolk State kicks off at 1 p.m. at Bobcat Stadium. It will be televised statewide on the SWX Montana network.