Through a pandemic, a postponed season and a changed coaching staff, Montana State football looked the same as it has for the last five years.
The Bobcats have a first-year offensive coordinator. They won’t play games this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic. Their fall scrimmage on Saturday was played at Bobcat Stadium without fans, who instead had to watch the event online.
But the Bobcats haven’t changed. In a 14-7 win for the White team over the Blue team that featured a mix of young and veteran players, the Bobcats’ defense shined, their run game thrived and their passing game was inconsistent.
“For the most part, I thought competition was really good,” MSU head coach Jeff Choate said. “I don’t think we set football back 100 years today, not exactly what you’re looking for, but I think it was awesome. The energy was great. Our kids were excited to be out there and play.
“And it came right down to the wire. Just some Bobcat football. You’ve got to stick around until the fourth quarter.”
The highlight of the scrimmage came on the final possession of the game. With 2 minutes, 12 seconds remaining, NC State transfer quarterback Matthew McKay took the field and threw accurate passes as he drove the Blue team down to the 4-yard line.
But on fourth and goal, McKay’s final pass was intercepted by linebacker Tadan Gilman, who excelled throughout the scrimmage, as time expired.
“I thought Matt extended some plays and gave us some opportunities, did a really nice job operating,” Choate said. “And then it came down to one play. In that situation, I thought Matt did a nice job sliding in the pocket trying to keep the play alive. He gave us a chance, and that’s what you’ve got to do in that situation.”
MSU’s quarterback play was inconsistent on Saturday, which has been a theme for the program since Choate took over as head coach. McKay, sophomore Casey Bauman and junior Tucker Rovig each had high and low moments.
On the Blue team’s scoring drive, Bauman, who was the fifth quarterback to hit the field, shined right away. He hit Lance McCutcheon for an 18-yard gain and Coy Steel for another 17-yarder to set up a touchdown.
However, he also threw an interception to Danny Uluilakepa late in the scrimmage, which led to the White team’s game-winning score.
McKay displayed his elusiveness and mobility in the pocket which make him an intriguing candidate to run the Bobcats’ offense.
On that final drive, McKay found McCutcheon for a 20-yard gain along the sideline on the first play. He later threw a 25-yard strike to Steel in a small window between defenders to lead the Blue team to the White team’s 30-yard line.
McKay’s poise was notable. On fourth and 9 afterward, McKay recognized the White team was blitzing and threw a dart to Willie Patterson on a shallow crossing route to pick up the first down.
But then on fourth down later, 4 yards away from the goal line, McKay’s pass was deflected and ended up in the hands of Gilman. That was McKay’s second interception of the day.
Choate said he’s happy he doesn’t have to choose a starting quarterback anytime soon. The Bobcats defenses varied their pressure packages, Choate said, which may have confused the QBs. He said his signal callers will watch film and identify ways they can make better decisions.
But Choate added he would be confident if Rovig, Bauman or McKay was the starter.
“This is going to be interesting when we get to play for real,” Choate said. “We’ve got to make some decisions. There’s going to be some really tough conversations about what’s going to be best for our team overall.”
Choate said the Bobcats would rotate players throughout the scrimmage to give them more opportunities to stand out. Without all-Big Sky contributors like Amandre Williams, Chase Benson and Troy Andersen up front, younger players had their chances to earn playing time.
MSU’s young group of running backs each took their turn handling the workload. Lane Sumner scored on a 2-yard run for the Blue team in the second quarter, and then freshman Elijah Elliott bounced off multiple tackles for a 9-yard White team score before halftime.
After a scoreless third quarter, Jaharie Martin dove over the goal line for a 2-yard touchdown, giving the White team what would end up being the winning score with less than three minutes remaining.
“Being able to play some type of ball meant everything,” Martin said, “especially after seeing other conferences around the country being able to have seasons. Just being out there was fun and exciting for everyone.”
The Bobcats were also creative in their run game. Tyrone Marshall converted on a fourth down on a fly sweep, plays he often excelled with last year.
And without Andersen, running back Isaiah Ifanse and tight end Derryk Snell each stepped in as wildcat quarterbacks.
“That’s Bobcat football,” Choate said of the run game. “It probably didn’t look that much different than it has in the past. That’s going to be our DNA.”
Safety Ty Okada noted how the Bobcats didn’t allow many explosive plays because of their effective tackling. This led to a low-scoring contest.
The two defenses combined for four takeaways, all interceptions. Senior linebacker Michael Jobman intercepted a pass from Rovig early on. Oregon State transfer safety Jeffrey Manning, who has yet to play a game for the Bobcats, picked off McKay late in the first half as well.
“That’s a super big deal to steal possessions like that,” Okada said.
MSU’s competitiveness was evident from the beginning. The White team’s sideline tried to be as loud as possible on the final drive. After the game, Okada gave Martin grief because his knee may have hit the ground before the ball crossed the goal line on his touchdown.
The Bobcats were simply eager to return to the field. When asked about the team’s offseason plans, Martin immediately brought up weight lifting “bright and early” at 6 a.m. Monday. Though after missing plenty of training during the offseason because of the pandemic, the Bobcats are looking forward to making up for that in the next few weeks.
The Bobcats hope they can carry momentum forward to the spring season, which is likely to begin in late February.
“I think this kind of brought us together even more,” Martin said, “and will be able to give us a leg up in the spring.”