DES MOINES, Iowa — With their backs against the wall and lady luck seemingly fancying the Bulldogs for the evening, the Bobcats leapt to the only place they could: Upon the shoulders of their captains.
No. 4 Montana State found itself in a slugfest in a place Rob Ash knows well against a program the MSU head coach helped build. With a little more than 11 minutes to play, the two-time defending co-Big Sky Conference champion Bobcats trailed the host Drake Bulldogs 24-21. Then Caleb Schreibeis and Tray Robinson let their presence be known.
The senior captains came up with crucial plays — Robinson a go-ahead touchdown and Schreibeis a momentum-stealing sack — to help Montana State escape an upset of seismic proportions here Saturday night. Robinson’s 30-yard touchdown burst put MSU up for good 28-24, before a late Tanner Bleskin receiving touchdown gave MSU a 34-24 victory. On the ensuing Drake possession, it was Schreibeis’ sack and forced fumble that helped the defense get off the field one of the most crucial situations of the heated contest.
Ash’s 83rd win in Drake Stadium (first as a visitor) pushed MSU to 2-0. The host Bulldogs, who are a non-scholarship FCS program, fell to 1-1.
“I tell our team that we are defined by how you play in tough times when you face adversity and I think this team passed that test very well today,” said Ash, who won 125 games in 18 seasons as Drake’s head coach between 1989 and 2006. “Our most veteran, experienced guys, guys like Tray and Caleb, are the guys who carried us through in those crucial times.”
Montana State star defensive linemen Zach Minter (hamstring) and Brad Daly (ankle) each were taken out of the game with lingering injuries after the evening’s first series. With two of the nation’s premier pass rushers on the shelf, Mike Piatkowski and the Drake passing game went to work.
Drake’s fifth-year senior quarterback found holes in Montana State’s pass coverage all game, completing 25-of-43 passes for 311 yards and a touchdown. Without much heat from the Bobcats in the first three quarters — MSU notched three sacks Saturday, all in the final frame — Piatkowski helped DU move the ball seemingly at will. Drake had 23 first downs, including 15 that came on Piatkowski completions. Tight end Kevin Marshall caught 11 passes for 100 yards, including seven receptions that moved the chains.
“You don’t know exactly where they are going to be, but they are fundamental and they don’t move around a lot on defense, so we knew exactly how we wanted to attack them,” said Drake fifth-year head coach Chris Creighton, who lost at Drake Stadium for only the fourth time in 26 games. “I thought Mike was a warrior. Pike took care of the ball and he is so good at getting us into the right place. He is a special player.”
Meanwhile, defensively the Bulldogs kept Montana State bottled up. The Bobcats gained 374 total yards — including 78 yards on six receptions by Bleskin — but MSU averaged less than five yards per play.
Drake’s linebacker crew of Tyler Moorehead, Travis Merritt and John Hugunin combined for 34 tackles, including five behind the line of scrimmage as Drake limited MSU to 3.8 yards per carry. The Bulldogs notched three sacks and 12 tackles for loss, putting MSU quarterback DeNarius McGhee under pressure all evening.
“Those guys were so focused today, I didn’t even know what to say to them in the pregame,” Creighton said. “They left everything out on the field.
“We are good; none of us are surprised and this is not ok. We wanted to win this football game. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great football team. I have nothing but respect for their program, but we came out here to win.”
Midway through the first quarter, Montana State looked like it would roll over the defending Pioneer Football League champions. On MSU’s third possession, the gap in athletic talent looked apparent.
MSU took over on its own 10 after a penalty — the ‘Cats were flagged eight times for 70 yards — and proceeded to slice and dice DU. McGhee completed five passes, including a 24-yarder to Bleskin to move MSU inside the redzone, before junior Cody Kirk sealed the 13-play, nearly six-minute march with a two-yard touchdown burst.
In the second quarter, MSU forced Drake into a fourth-down and short from midfield. DU lined up for a punt, but instead elected to fake it. Michael Hudson gained 30 yards, setting up Drak’s first score, a two-yard plunge by T.J. James.
MSU stole the lead back when Drake fumbled a punt. Two plays later, senior Orenzo Davis took a handoff off-tackle and exploded to give MSU a 14-7 lead.
Piatkowski began his surgery on MSU. He hit three straight lofting, back-shoulder passes for gains of 22, 25 and 37 yards. MSU held Drake to a field goal on the possession, but the slugfest was on. Before the half was over, Piatkowski rolled out on a bootleg and hit Hudson to give DU a 17-14 lead heading into intermission.
“We had one-on-one situations on the outside, 50-50 balls and our receivers just made plays,” Piatkowski said. “I felt like we had that one. We played well offensively and defensively. We had a great plan and executed. It just didn’t turn out.”
MSU snatched the lead back on a five-yard touchdown scramble by McGhee, but DU countered less than four minutes later when Piatkowski rushed for a score of his own.
Then the captains saved the day. Robinson’s burst turned a somewhat stagnant drive into the game-sealer, then Schreibeis smacked Piatkowski from behind so hard the senior fumbled and couldn’t find a rhythm thereafter.
“We had to win; As a player, it was go time and we had to step up and the opportunity came,” Schreibeis said. “If I wouldn’t have made it, someone else would have been there. That’s how our group is. We work for each other, not just the defensive line, not just the defense, but the team as a whole.
“A win like this is better to losing like this. To be honest, I think this is a good thing. Facing adversity early, it humbles us a little bit. We just have to work all that much harder.”