DeMareus Hosey was ready for this.

He secured a handoff and bolted left. He patiently followed blocks on the perimeter, then cut up field. A defender tried to grab him, but Hosey remained steady and balanced.

He cruised into the end zone for his first career touchdown, establishing momentum that couldn’t be stopped. He opened his arms toward the student section on the south side of Bobcat Stadium before he was swarmed by teammates.

Montana State was ready for this.

No matter the mistakes they made in the first half or the players missing due to injury, the Bobcats proved worthy of being considered one of the best teams in the country.

Going into intermission tied, No. 13-ranked MSU scored 28 points in the third quarter and dismantled No. 12 Southeast Missouri 38-17 on Saturday night.

This was the highest-ranked opponent MSU defeated during head coach Jeff Choate’s tenure.

“They were a worthy opponent,” Choate said. “Certainly for us, coming off a tough game (at Texas Tech) last week, this was important for us.”

The Bobcats went to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014 last season, but that wasn’t enough for Choate. Soon after the 2018 season was over at the hands of eventual national champion North Dakota State, Choate began thinking about the next step. After enjoying the postseason at home as recently as two years ago, he wanted the Bobcats to take the first round of the FCS playoffs off. But this time, the Bobcats want a first-round bye.

They knew they had to beat top-notch teams to prove they were ready for that. In topping the Redhawks, in holding them to eight three-and-outs, MSU deserves to be in the discussion of a top-eight ranking right next to Big Sky powerhouses UC Davis, Eastern Washington and Weber State.

“I think that’s everybody’s goal at this level, realizing how important that (first-round bye) is,” Choate said. “I think all this does is make next week’s game that much bigger. It makes Western Illinois a very, very big game for us. That’s the way it’s going to be. If you win, every game gets more important and gets bigger.”

The Bobcats (1-1) were top-notch at nearly every level from the beginning. They dominated up front, forcing a three and out on SEMO’s first possession. Then Coy Steel blocked the ensuing punt, and two plays later, Troy Andersen was cruising into the end zone to give the Bobcats the lead less than three minutes into the game.

Then MSU proved capable of battling through mistakes. A botched punt attempt on its own 9-yard line set the Redhawks up for an easy touchdown, and a roughing the passer penalty led to a 55-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to tie the game.

“We don’t talk about being frontrunners, we talk about being finishers,” Choate said. “We don’t try to win warmups.”

MSU running back Isaiah Ifanse, who rushed for 1,000 yards last season, came out of the locker room after halftime with his helmet and pads off. But the Bobcats were fine. They opened the second half with a 65-yard drive that included a 44-yard Andersen run and finished with Hosey’s touchdown.

And the Bobcats didn’t slow down. They finished their first four drives of the second half with touchdowns. MSU’s offensive line neutralized SEMO linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award winner Zach Hall, clearing the way for the Bobcats to rush for 265 yards. Other than the fumble on the punt, the Bobcats didn’t turn the ball over to a team that led the nation in takeaways a season ago.

“If we executed in the first half, this could’ve been a completely different game,” MSU wide receiver Kevin Kassis said with a smile. “I think it shows we come out of halftime with our hair on fire, which I think was good to see. It’s a good SEMO team.”

And the Bobcats’ defense thoroughly dominated, limiting the Redhawks to 245 total yards. SEMO was on MSU’s side of the field only four times.

A key reason for that was Redhawks quarterback Daniel Santacaterina had little to no time to pass. Bobcats defensive end Bryce Sterk, who recorded three of MSU’s six sacks, felt Santacaterina become jittery every time he touched the ball. He finished 13-for-28 passing for 114 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

“We were definitely determined. We knew we could win,” Sterk said. “We knew if we just kept pounding as a defense, eventually the offense would click.”

After the game, Choate, Kassis and Sterk were asked about what this win does for their playoff resume. Easily, they could’ve deflected, saying they were just focused on the next game.

But no, they knew what this win does and were clear about their intentions. It indicates they’re ready to be considered one of the top teams in the country.

“Being able to show dominance like that really goes a long way,” Sterk said. “We’re off to a good start, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.