Bobcats poised to keep climbing the ranks
Montana State's Denarius McGhee (left) avoids an NDSU defender during an FCS playoff game last fall in Bozeman. McGhee is considered one of the top quarterbacks in the FCS this season and the Bobcats are favorite in the Big Sky Conference.
The Bobcats went 9-3 overall in 2010, captured a share of the Big Sky championship for the first time since 2005 and earned a bye and a home game in the FCS playoffs. That game ended in disappointment as NDSU stormed past the Cats in the second half. But it also left MSU hungry to achieve even bigger dreams in 2011.
And those dreams are big and expectations are high in Bozeman as the Cats prepare to open the season against new Pac 12 power Utah tonight in Salt Lake City. MSU returns most of its starters on offense and a strong defensive front this season leaving head coach Rob Ash to wonder if this might be one of the most talented teams he's ever coached.
And that talent doesn't get any bigger than sophomore quarterback Denarius McGhee. He was the 2010 Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP as a redshirt freshman after throwing for more than 3,000 yards and over 30 touchdowns. McGhee enter his sophomore season as an FCS All-American and Walter Peyton Award candidate, and he leads one of the most dynamic offense in the country.
MSU is a juggernaut on offense, finishing in the Top 10 in the FCS in scoring and total offense a year ago. The Cats return a bevy of playmakers , including all-conference wideouts Elvis Akpla, Everett Gilbert and Tanner Bleskin. Youngsters Kruiz Seiwing and Brian Flotkoetter could also have an impact on the MSU passing game this season.
But as good as the Cats can be on offense, there are still some question marks. MSU has already had injuries to a somewhat undersized offensive line. Still, the Cats will likely start four seniors up front. And the Cats lost star tailback Orenzo Davis to academics in the spring. Davis was a sparkplug for MSU a year ago, rushing for over 1,000 yards and making the Cats even tougher to stop. This season, MSU will likely run by committee with redshirt freshman Cody Kirk earning the starting job. University of Nebraska transfer Trey Robinson will also get plenty of looks as will veteran bruiser C.J. Palmer.
Even with the unknowns at running back, Montana State should have little trouble putting points on the board. The Bobcats are projected to have one of the top offenses in the FCS, especially with possibly the top FCS quarterback in McGhee. And the Cats have perhaps two of the best kickers in the FCS in place kicker Jason Cunningham and punter Rory Perez to boot. But if last year's game against NDSU showed anything, it was that Montana State needs to be better on defense if the Cats want to take the next step and compete for a national championship.
The Bobcats do return some top defenders including in tackle Zack Minter and end John Laidet, both starter from a year ago. In fact, the defensive front will be a strength for MSU this season with Christian Keli'i, Caleb Schreibeis also starting, as well as Brad Daly returning to the team. MSU also has veterans like Jody Owens and Clay Bignell back at linebacker, but leading tackler Alexi Grosulak was lost for at least some of the season to an knee injury last year.
The big question of defense is in the secondary where MSU will be mostly new. The Cats will start young but talented corners, while only junior Joel Fuller at safety has much starting experience.
So while Montana State might be one of the top offenses in the country in 2011, it's the defense which could make or break the Cats in 2011.
Still, excitement couldn't be higher in Bozeman. The Cats are coming off a Big Sky title in 2010, they have one of the most exciting players in the country, and on top of it all, they are about to open a newly refurbished Bobcat Stadium with a 7,000 seat expansion in the south endzone. MSU also installed a brand new scoreboard with an amazing HD video board, as well as new locker rooms and other amenities.
"I think everyone in the program, from myself and the assistant coaches to the players and everyone else involved, can feel the excitement," Ash said. "The University and our fans have shown great faith in this program through their support of the end zone project and by packing the stadium. This presents us a tremendous opportunity."
Montana State opens its season tonight at Utah. The game can be seen statewide on Max Media Television at 6 p.m. The Cats' home opener is set for Sept. 10 when they face UC Davis in Bozeman. All of MSU's games this season will be broadcast statewide through Max Media.