Bobcat Stadium alarms unexpectedly blared for a few moments during the first quarter Saturday.
The din echoed through the building’s corridors, and echoed the sentiments of many unnerved Montana State fans in the wake of last week’s fateful final snap in Dallas.
The Bobcats faithful can exhale now, if only briefly. DeNarius McGhee will be sidelined for the foreseeable future — the senior was roaming the sidelines in street clothes with his right arm secured in a sling on this afternoon against Division II Colorado Mesa — but his relatively unknown replacement made quite a first impression.
If they harbored any reservations about having redshirt freshman Jake Bleskin under center, MSU coaches certainly did not show it. On the first play of the Great Falls native’s first start, Bleskin faked a hand-off in the shadow of his own end zone, dropped back and heaved the ball 44 yards on a post pattern to senior Jon Ellis.
On a day dominated by the defense, Bleskin produced some impressive statistics of his own, completing 26-of-35 pass attempts for 305 yards and two touchdowns. The result: a thorough, if not dazzling, 26-0 victory against the overmatched Mavericks.
“I thought Jake was excellent,” Bobcats head coach Rob Ash said of Bleskin, who will fill in for anywhere from three to seven weeks while McGhee rests and rehabilitates a separated throwing shoulder.
“We obviously didn’t have any qualms about Jake based on our first play that we called. I thought that was a great idea by (offensive coordinator Tim) Cramsey to just let him get out there and chuck it. We were just afraid that we didn’t have a receiver to run far enough to catch that first pass, as pumped up as Jake was probably going to be.”
Everyone within the program spent the better part of the week leading up to kickoff touting Bleskin’s intelligence and grasp of Cramsey’s zone-read offense. They routinely dismissed all notions that starting Bleskin, who had attempted just eight collegiate passes in six abbreviated appearances, created anxiety.
There was little angst to be found on the home sideline Saturday.
Sure, Bleskin displayed some inevitable signs of inexperience. While Cramsey made sure to get the ball out of his young quarterback’s hands quickly, Bleskin did appear flustered at times when he dropped back and scanned the field. A few of his passes missed the mark — among them a sure touchdown to Brian Flotkoetter that sailed well high and an errant toss that should’ve been intercepted.
Still, Ash asserted that Bleskin displayed poise that belied his age.
“Things you may not see as an observer: his reads with the pass game, knowing what progression to go in, where he was supposed to look first based on the coverage; he protected the ball — we didn’t have any giveaways,” Ash said. “He pulled it down when it wasn’t there, didn’t force anything. I thought he played with an awful lot of maturity for a guy that was playing just his first start.”
Added Flotkoetter, “I fully trust Jake. When I first got here, I was a (No.) 2 and he was my quarterback. Our offense came out hot (today).”
Bleskin’s long-range connection with Ellis was the highlight of an opening offensive drive in which the Bobcats marched 82 yards in 11 plays. They were stymied in the red zone but came away with three points courtesy of a 26-yard boot from placekicker Rory Perez.
Bleskin capped a 10-play, 66-yard drive late in the second quarter with a timely pump-fake and 18-yard toss to Flotkoetter. After the ensuing two-point conversion, the MSU lead ballooned to 19.
“I was pretty good from the beginning,” Bleskin said of his comfort level. “Like I said this week, I had 10 studs with me on the field. I really had nothing to worry about.
“It was really important for me to know that these guys trusted me. I think they have all season, hopefully. We really needed to get out there and play.”
Flotkoetter, Ellis and Tanner Bleskin combined for 22 catches and 286 yards. That production was sorely needed in a game where the Bobcats generated little with its ground game; MSU mustered 98 yards rushing, just 4 more than Mesa’s Jake Cimolino. Cody Kirk and Shawn Johnson rushed 25 times for only 88 yards.
The ground struggles were on full display during a final half in which the Bobcats mustered just seven points. They went three and out on their first two possessions, failed to gain 1 yard on an attempted fourth-down conversion and missed a field goal in the third quarter.
Bleskin and Flotkoetter helped inject some life into both the offense and a hushed stadium with another 18-yard score with 29 seconds remaining in the frame.
“There really wasn’t anything said. We’ve all been playing together for a while and we all understand the situations,” Flotkoetter said. “Yeah, we got stopped a couple of times, and there is a sense of urgency when that happens. But there’s no inspirational words. You just have to go out and get it done, really.”
The Bobcats’ defense accomplished that all afternoon. They generated seemingly constant, smothering pressure, crowded passing lanes and made Mesa quarterback Kyle Duran’s first start a rather forgettable experience.
The redshirt freshman misfired on seven of eight pass attempts during a first half in which the Mavericks amassed 76 yards of total offense and failed to convert a third down in six opportunities. One of those throws wound up in the hands of MSU linebacker Alex Singleton, who secured the ball after a slight bobble and sprinted 23 yards the opposite way for a touchdown with 5:53 remaining in the opening quarter.
“I thought I was going to drop it,” Singleton joked. “Everyone behind me locked up. Before the game we talked about the 10-yard out, and I looked for it.”
Duran finished with 41 yards through the air on five completions — one fewer than the number of times he was sacked.
Brad Daly led the charge on the Bobcats’ defensive front with four sacks. Mesa was outgained 403-168 and logged just nine first downs in the game.
“It helps to have the back end hold up like they did. They did a great job today,” said Daly, who excelled despite being hampered by nagging back and hip injuries. “(The) quarterback didn’t know where to go, and he fell in my lap a couple of times.”
Added Ash, “One of the hallmarks of our program the last four years counting this one has been four-man pressure. We did blitz a little bit to add to the formula a little this week, but when we can get the matchups up front like we’ve had and get guys like Brad Daly and the other guys … loose and getting pressure on the quarterback it makes life a lot easier. I thought our D-line played fabulous.”
What about the total effort?
“I told the team after the game — and this is the honest truth of what I said — you’ll never hear me complain after a win,” Ash said. “We came out here to win and won the game; we won it decisively. … We had to have it.”
Now, for the second time in three weeks, the Bobcats head to Texas after a convincing victory. MSU takes on Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches on Saturday.
Jon Maletz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582.2601. Follow him on Twitter @jmaletz.