BOZEMAN (AP) — Rob Ash waited 32 years for his first postseason victory as a college football coach. So he didn't mind getting flagged for a little excessive celebration a few seconds before it was official.
Ash and his Montana State players came flying off their sideline after Steven Bethley tipped an extra point attempt with 6 seconds remaining Saturday to preserve the Bobcats' wild 26-25 victory over New Hampshire in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
No. 7 Montana State (10-2) was penalized 15 yards for the celebration, but secured its quarterfinal trip to play Sam Houston State on Saturday by recovering the ensuing onside kick.
"I jumped as high as I could — which isn't very high," said Ash, in his fifth year at Montana State after 18 years as head coach at Drake and nine at Juniata. "I've never been so OK with a 15-yard penalty."
Bethley's deflection of Mike MacArthur's extra-point attempt — which hit the right upright — came after New Hampshire's Kevin Decker hit Justin Mello with a 29-yard touchdown pass, his second scoring catch of the game. The Wildcats (8-4) had thought their season was over when Montana State's Darius Jones intercepted Decker at the 3-yard line with 1:16 to play, but they stopped the Bobcats' three running plays and took over at the 29 with 17 seconds to go after a shanked punt.
"I really thought we would have a good shot in overtime," Decker said.
Montana State overcame four turnovers, including three interceptions by quarterback DeNarius McGhee. Matt Evans returned one of McGhee's errant throws 58 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to give New Hampshire a 10-0 lead, and the Wildcats' Adrian Gonnell took a blocked extra point back for two points to make it 12-9 with 5:44 to play in the first half.
Mello's first scoring catch, an 18-yarder, gave New Hampshire a 19-9 lead 3:04 before halftime.
McGhee rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns, and also threw for 167 yards and a TD. His 2-yard run 25 seconds before halftime brought Montana State to within 19-16 and his 37-yard dash with 10:52 remaining in the third quarter put the Bobcats ahead to stay at 23-19.
Jason Cunningham kicked a 26-yard field goal with 9:38 left to give Montana State a seven-point lead before the late-game fireworks began.
"That was a great win we had," said Montana State's Elvis Akpla, who caught eight passes for 105 yards to give him 2,107 for his career and move past Chip Hobbs (1995-1999) into first place on the school's all-time list. "I really can't describe it."
It is the second time Montana State has defeated New Hampshire in the postseason by virtue of a blocked extra point. In 1976, the Bobcats won 17-16 en route to an NCAA Division II championship.
New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell was a player on that Wildcat team.
"My hat goes off to Montana State," McDonnell said. "That team's as good as any we played all year."
And the Bobcats good play was finally rewarded Saturday. MSU atoned for last year’s second-round loss to North Dakota State in Bozeman. Similar to Saturday’s game against the Wildcats, last year, the Cats seemed to have the Bison under control heading into the fourth quarter, only two watch NDSU storm back. On Saturday, MSU and its fans were doing the storming. After running off the final seconds, the Bobcat faithful stormed the field to celebrate the Cats first playoff win since 2006.
“I really can't describe it; all of us, not just players, but coaches and the training staff, we work so hard year round so it's really great to get the reward of a win, especially the way we did it," Akpla said "It's really indescribable."
The Bobcats are in the FCS quarterfinals for the first time since 2006, where they lost at Appalchian State. To move into their first semifinal since the 1984 national championship season, the Cats will have to beat the undefeated Bearkats Saturday morning in Huntsville, TX. SHSU, the only unbeaten team remaining in the FCS survived a scare from Stony Brook on Saturday afternoon.
Montana State’s game at Sam Houston will be televised nationally on ESPN. The game will kick off at 10 a.m. M.S.T. this Saturday.
“It was an honor to play against (New Hampshire)," said Ash. "We knew they were mentally tough and we knew they wouldn't go away. Their rally at the end was inspiring to watch.
"Apparently, they went through this 35 year ago and (UNH head) coach McDonnell was a member of that team. I know that this is tough for them right now. But we are honored to play against a team like that."
Note: Havre Daily News sports editor George Ferguson contributed to this story.