Over the last three seasons, the Montana State Bobcats have been on a steady climb. Yet, as the 2013 season draws near, the Cats still feel as though they have a mountain to scale.
Montana State has claimed at least a share of the Big Sky Conference title in each of the last three seasons. The Cats have also reached the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals the last two seasons, and among other things, have been ranked No. 1 in the FCS on several different occasions, as well as have stayed in the FCS Top 10 for nearly three years now.
For a program that went 0-11 not too long ago, that’s a lot to be proud of. But as MSU prepares to host Monmouth in its season opener Thursday night inside Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, there’s reason to believe the Cats want to, and can, achieve so much more.
Montana State is again the preseason favorite to claim the Big Sky crown, and the Cats begin the season ranked No. 2 in all FCS Polls. They return two-time Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year DeNarius McGhee as quarterback, as well as senior running back Cody Kirk and wide receiver Tanner Bleskin. Graduation and injuries have hit the MSU defense hard since last spring, but optimism is also high on that side of the ball. And with so much depth and talent, and the legendary McGhee in his final year at the controls, MSU has to be thinking it’s national championship or bust in 2013.
Still, veteran head coach Rob Ash, who’s already one of the winningest coaches at MSU (50-22) knows the 2013 season is a long marathon, not a sprint. And already, he’s not looking back at MSU’s heartbreaking home loss to Sam Houston State in the 2012 FCS quarterfinals, he’s only looking forward to what lies ahead.
“You gotta keep thinking about the next game, the past is the past, we just need to keep thinking one game at a time,” Ash said.
Offensively, MSU has a new coordinator and the Cats are expected to play at a much faster pace this season. McGhee is the catalyst, having already thrown for 9,116 yards and 71 touchdowns in a brilliant career. He holds, or will hold, almost all of MSU’s passing records by season’s end, and he’s on the Payton Award Watch List for the fourth straight season.
McGhee has help too.
Bleskin and Kirk return as all-conference performers, and a healthy Kirk is a shoe-in to rush for over 1,000 yards this season. Jon Ellis and Brian Floetketter are dangerous threats at wide receiver, while the addition of former Bozeman High star and Nevada drop-down Tanner Roderick adds a new dimension to the offense. Roderick transferred to MSU after trying to crack the Nevada lineup as a quarterback. He’ll play receiver this season, and has already had a monster fall camp. The explosive Shawn Johnson is the No. 2 running back and will see plenty of action, while he’s also one of the best kick returners in the Big Sky, while talented tight end Tiai Salanoa returns after missing much of last season with an injury.
MSU won’t have a problem scoring points this season, as the Cats have been one of the top scoring offenses in the Big Sky the last three seasons. But a revamped offensive line should give MSU even more firepower. The Cats have gotten bigger on the line, and it should be one of the most improved units on the MSU team this season. John Weidenaar, a 6-7, 280-pound monster is one of the top left tackles in the Big Sky.
“We still have Cody Kirk in the backfield, look for Cody to have a 1000-yard rushing season, and Shawn Johnson will be an interesting player. He will be in the backfield with Cody Kirk this season getting the ball a lot more. You should look for John Ellis, Tanner Bleskin, [and] Tanner Roderick to be catching the long balls this season,” Ash said.
And while McGhee is, and has been, the face of MSU football for years now, the Bobcat defense has been top-notch the last three seasons. MSU ranked among the top defenses in the FCS last season in scoring and total defense, but that side of the ball took a heavy hit. Gone is Buck Buchanen winner Caleb Schreibeis at defensive end, as well as all-conference standouts Zack Minter and Jody Owens. Starting safety Joel Fuller also departed, while MSU lost starting linebacker Na’a Moeakiola to a season-ending injury, and fellow linebacker Alexi Grosulak retired due to injury. In fall camp, the Cats also lost starting defensive end Preston Gale for at least six weeks, while other starters have been banged up.
So, the MSU defense will certainly have a new look this season, but that doesn’t mean the Cats lack talent. Defensive end Brad Daly is back for his senior season. Daly led the Big Sky in sacks two years ago. Linebacker Alex Singleton is a star in the making, and despite the loss of Fuller and Darius Jones, MSU’s secondary looks to be in good hands with two experienced corners, and returning all-conference safety Steven Bethley back. The Cats also have a steady kicker and punter in senior Rory Perez.
In general, depth seems to be good at MSU with plenty of fresh faces expected to emerge this season. Look for running backs Chad Newell and Gunnar Brekke to have a big impact somewhere, as should players like Odin Coe (DL), Blake Braun (LB), Austin Barth (TE), David Dash (WR) and Eryon Barnett (S).
And there’s no question, MSU is loaded with talent. Despite graduating some all-time greats last year, like Owens at linebacker, MSU seems to have all the pieces. A senior quarterback who is one of the best in the country, a veteran set of skill players behind an improved offensive line and talent on defense in spite of the injuries, as well as a reliable kicking game and veteran leadership from the coaching staff.
Despite losses to SHSU in the FCS quarterfinals the last two years, MSU also seems to have momentum as a program. Season tickets sold out sooner than ever before this summer, Thursday night’s opener will be standing-room-only, the Cats unveiled fresh new uniforms in July and MSU is the hot pick to challenge North Dakota State for the FCS title.
But the Cats, especially their star quarterback, aren’t willing to look ahead. They won’t look past Monmouth, or ahead to exciting early season trips to FBS power SMU or FCS rival S.F. Austin. They aren’t thinking about running the table in the Big Sky, which some people say is possible, or even to their rivalry game with the Montana Grizzlies Nov. 23 in Bozeman. They aren’t thinking about the FCS playoffs, or night games on ESPN, or even Frisco, Texas, though those are all goals.
No, MSU is focused on one day at a time, and being the best team each and every day.
“We’re just embracing this moment,” McGhee said during an interview at MSU’s annual Media Day at Bobcat Stadium. “We’re making sure that we take every day and make it count.”
“Today is very important, and we don’t (want to) get ahead of ourselves and start thinking a game or a day or a snap ahead, and that we take care of what needs to be taken care of right now,” McGhee added. “The energy level of the fans is above what it’s ever been. But it’s fun. You have to embrace it. You just make the most of it and make sure you’re focused day in and day out.”
MSU will open the season Thursday night against FCS opponent Monmouth. The Gold Rush Game kicks off at 7:05 p.m. in Bozeman and can be seen locally on Max Media.