The narrative following MSU’s 43-35 victory over Stephen F. Austin last weekend revolved around the Bobcats’ unblemished record and the question of Montana State’s readiness for Big Sky Conference play.
If Saturday’s homecoming performance can be registered as a response, Rob Ash’s team answered with an emphatic yes.
In their 41-16 demolition of Northern Colorado, the Bobcats racked up 564 yards, limited the Northern Colorado offense to just 266 yards, kept UNC quarterback Seth Lobato from finding any sustainable rhythm and put him on the Bobcat Stadium turf four times.
“We talked about this from the very beginning of the season, how the Big Sky Conference was our first goal here,” MSU head coach Rob Ash said. “It got us off to a good start and hopefully we set a precedent.”
If it is a precedent, it didn’t take long for Montana State to set it. One quarter into their conference opener, the Bobcats were up 21-0 and registered 176 yards of total offense on 26 plays.
“I fully anticipated we would come out with a fast start,” Ash said. “It was probably a little beyond my imagination to go three straight touchdowns and three straight three-and-outs. I really thought we would start fast and then hang on.”
Though not completely accurate, Ash’s prognostication was basically what the Bobcats did. Thanks in part to Northern Colorado’s faulty special teams play – UNC punter Mason Puckett’s first two punts went off the side of his foot, one for 32-yards, the other for 12 – Montana State opened up with excellent field position.
Their first touchdown drive covered just 56 yards, it was capped when DeNarius McGhee found Tray Robinson out of the backfield for a nine-yard touchdown pass. Montana State then drove 43 yards on nine plays and was ahead 14-0 when Cody Kirk ran untouched out of a fully loaded backfield with 6:47 remaining in the first quarter.
Kirk found the end zone again from two yards out with one second left in the quarter, this time the score came on the tail end of 77-yard march. Montana State regained possession after Brian Bignell sacked Lobato on third down for MSU’s second sack of the game. Plunkett’s third punt of the frame forced Montana State to start from its own 23.
McGhee completed 3-of-5 passes on the drive for 49 yards. It should also be noted he saved the drive, like he so commonly does, when he broke free of a seemingly sure sack then scrambled 22 yards on a 2nd and 17 from the ‘Cats’ 17-yard line. Kirk’s touchdown followed McGhee’s 32-yard strike to Evert Gilbert who was on a drag route across the center of the field and was eventually pulled down at the UNC 2-yard line.
“Our coaches emphasized getting out to a great start this week so we tried to do exactly that and thankfully we were able to put up 21 points on three consecutive drives,” McGhee said.
Montana State’s defense was equally impressive. Northern Colorado was limited to just 10 yards and 12 plays and didn’t move the chains for a first down until eight seconds into the second quarter.
“We had a great game plan, the coaches did a really good job there,” said Bignell, who finished the game with two sacks. “We were just relentless upfront. We were able to get some people back and get some depth up there and just kept rotating guys through.”
“I thought the defense was great,” Ash added. “Our defense was up for the task. I thought it was a tremendous performance. We had a lot of three-and-outs and a lot of stops for drives.”
The Bobcats did catch a scare in the second quarter when Northern Colorado was temporarily able to find a rhythm and trimmed the MSU lead to 21-10 after Lobato found Demetrius Stimphil for 10 yards and the Bears’ only touchdown.
“I thought Northern Colorado did a pretty good job trying to get something going and get back in the game,” Ash said. “That was good because we had to keep playing and that kinda kept us going.”
McGhee and the ‘Cats’ offense then turned in their most impressive outing of the day. Stuck at their own 10 yard line, the Bobcats efficiently proceeded 90 yards for their fourth and final touchdown of the half. McGhee, again the maestro, completed 6-of-7 passes for 76 yards, and just for good measure, capped the drive running into the end zone from seven yards out.
“That’s a testimony to the focus of our offense,” Ash said, adding that the philosophy of the offense, despite its dynamism, is to take each series one play at a time. They did this 51 times in the first half, fatiguing the UNC defense and registering their most complete performance of the season.
“You always want convincing wins because that kind of sends out a signal to all other teams in the Big Sky and, I guess, in the country that we’re a pretty good team,” McGhee said. “We want to go out and do that every single game.”