Game Preview: The Montana State University Bobcats

Montana State University  is a proud program, winners of 3 National Championships, that had a rough 2016, finishing 4-7.  However, they are a dangerous team who is on the upswing after going through a coaching change, adding Jeff Choate, before the 2016 season.   The Jacks last met Montana State in the 2014 FCS playoffs which was played in a blizzard and featured long Zach Zenner runs into the end zone.  The Jacks won that game 47-40. Montana State is picked to finish 8th in the Big Sky preseason poll.  The Bobcats return 6 returning offensive starters and 9 defensive starters.  To start the year they played at FBS #24 ranked Washington State and lost 31-0.  This game will be the first for both programs as part of the "Big Sky/MVFC Challenge Series". 

Montana State deploys a hybrid option/spread attack which uses a heavy dose of the run to set-up chunk passing plays.  This may sound similar to what Cal Poly showed in 2016, but they are much less physical than the Cal Poly team that pulled the upset in Brookings.  Last year they averaged 25.6 points per game by running to the tune of 212 yards per game and passing for 155.9 yards per game.  Again, they use the run to setup the pass.  They are not your traditional timed passing offense.  The Cats wait for teams to sell out on the run and then pass over top when they catch a safety or corner back cheating up to held with the run. 

The Montana State offense is lead by reigning Big Sky Freshman of the year, #8 Chris Murray.  Murray is a dual threat who at this stage of his development is more comfortable as a runner instead of a thrower.  In 2016 he served in a quarterback duo and still paced the team with 985 rushing yards (78.2 per game) and was second in passing yards with 778 (70.6 per game).  Against a good Washington State defense, Murray was held to only 28 yards passing and 55 yards rushing. Washington State certainly contained Murray.  Part of their success is that they jumped out to an early 14-0 lead.  This forced Montana State to pass the ball more than they are probably comfortable with.  This is certainly a blueprint for the Jackrabbits to follow.

Joining Murray on offense are returning starting wide receivers #82 Mitchell Herbert and #3 Justin Paige.  Both Herbert and Paige are three year letter winners.  Herbert had 476 yards on only 26 receptions last year for an 18.3 ypc average.  Paige had a 12.7 ypc average.  The other starting receiver is #85 Kevin Kassis who posted a 16.9 ypc averaged.  The Bobcats have a new starting tight end, #87 Connor Sullivan who averaged a ridiculous 25.4 ypc on 7 receptions in 2016.  Again, play action chunk plays.  Out of all these names, Herbert was the only one to record a catch against Washington State (4 catches, 28 yards).

The starting tailback  is true freshman #15 Troy Anderson.  He had 9 carries for 33 yards against Washington State.  He is a big back, listed at 6'3 215 pounds.  The top leading rusher besides Murray, is #28 Logan Jones and he only had 16 attempts in 2016 and only one attempt in the first game.

The starting offensive line may be considered a strength with 3 returning starters.  #55 Dylan Mahoney, #67 Jake McFetridge, #70 Alex Neale, #73 Caleb Gillis, and  #63 Mitch Brott are their starters from left to right.  They average 288 pounds across the board and four of the starters are listed at 6'6.  In their first game this season, they were manhandled against a very good defensive line from Washington State.  The Jackrabbit defensive line will have to be as disruptive as they were against Duquesne and control the line of scrimmage.

The Bobcat's return 9 starters from a stout defense that only allowed 25.1 points per game in 2016; including one shut-out.  They allowed 145.9 yards per game rushing while surrendering 242.7 through the air.  When looking at these numbers, we need to consider that the Big Sky conference is home to some of the top passing attacks in the country.  The team returns everyone from the front 7 and is breaking in a new starting safety and corner back.  

The heart of the defense appears to be preseason All-Conference sam linebacker, #49 Mac Bignell.  Bignell paced the Bobcats in 2016 with 97 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 pass break ups, and 2 forced fumbles and recoveries.  He is certainly an impact player who the Jacks will have to be aware of.  Against Washington State he recorded 9 tackles and a sack.  He is joined by middle line backer, #58 Josh Hill, and will linebacker  #18 Brayden Konkol.  Konkol had 11 tackles in week one and Hill had 6.  In 2016, Hill was fourth on the team with 54 tackles and 2 interceptions.

The front defensive line appears to be lead by #41 Grant Collins.  Collins is only 240 pounds but registered 48 tackles and 2 sacks in 2016.  Against WSU he had 4 tackles.  He is joined by #96 Zach Wright (6'3 270), #92 Tucker Yates (6'0 295), and #57 Tyrone Fa'anono (6'2 270).  This unit appears to struggle with pass rush as only Collins recorded a sack in 2016.

In the secondary, the Bobcats are lead by strong safety #10 Bryson McCabe.  McCabe registered 75 tackles in 2016 and had 1 interception.  McCabe also registered a team-leading 13 tackles against WSU in week one.  McCabe is from Spirit Lake, Iowa.  The other returning starter is #24 Bryce Alley (5-11, 180).  As the boundary corner he will matched up with Jake Wieneke.  Just from a size perspective, I like this match-up a lot.  The other starting safety is #19 JoJo Henderson, a transfer from Snow College, recorded 3 tackles against WSU.  The other other starting cornerback is 5-11 sophomore #27 Damien Washington.  Washington had 5 tackles against WSU.  In 2016 he recorded 5 passes broken up in a reserve role.

Special Teams
The Cats have a new punter and kicker in 2017.  #45 Luke Daly is handling both duties.  He missed a 42 yard attempt against WSU but appeared much more comfortable punting, averaging 43 yards per punt with a long of 55.

In the return game, the Bobcats feature #85 Kevin Kassis.  In 2016 averaged 12.8 per return with a long of 47 on punts and 20.5 on kick returns.

This will be the home opener for Montana State which is a game known as "Gold Rush Days".  The Cats enjoy a rowdy crowd of nearly 18,000 fans at nearly all of their games.  Because it is a night game and the home opener, its easy to predict that the Jacks will be walking into a hostile environment.  Last year the Jacks stubbed their toe against a similar opponent and in a similar situation. The game against Cal Poly was one of the most frustrating that I can remember watching.  Poly had the Jacks defense completely on their heels.  The option is a frustrating offense to defend and everyone will have to stick to their assignments or else one of those chunk passing plays will result.  I'm not overly concerned about the Bobcat defense.  Although they are good, I think the Jacks have too many weapons to defend.  Against the top passing attacks MSU faced in 2016, they gave up 41 points against Sacramento State, 45 against Weber State, and 41 against Eastern Washington.  I think the Jacks can run or throw on them and that the defense learned its lesson in 2016.  I think the Jacks jump out to an early 17-0 lead and don't look back on their way to a 34-13 victory.

About Montana State University
Montana State University is located in beautiful Bozeman, Montana which is in the beautiful Rocky Mountains.  MSU has an enrollment of around 16,400 and was established in 1893.  MSU is in the top 3% nationally in university research expenditures and is a fellow Land-Grant institution.  The Athletic Department is lead by former Jackrabbit Associate AD Leon Costello.  I hope Leon and Justin Sell (SDSU's AD) have some sort of bet on this game.

As a junkie of Higher Education, I'm also excited to take a look at Mission and Vision Statements and Strategic Plans.  If you are like me, take a look here.

Go Jacks!


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