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Bobcats loaded for 2012

The Montana State Bobcats have shared the last two Big Sky Conference football championships. That is a big step considering where the Cats were when now head coach Rob Ash arrived.

And over the last two seasons, the Bobcats have possessed one of the most devastating offenses in the entire Football Championship Subdivision. Yet, those two championship seasons ended in devastation as well.

IN 2010, the Cats were riding high after beating rival Montana in Missoula, only to watch a huge lead slip away against North Dakota State in the FCS quarterfinals in Bozeman. Last season was different however. The Cats stumbled by losing 35-10 to the Griz in Bozeman, but rebounded to beat New Hampshire in a thrilling first-round playoff game in Bozeman. Then came a shellacking at the hands of Sam Houston State in Texas in the quarterfinals, and once again, the Cats were left waiting until next year after a season in which they ripped off nine wins in a row at one point.

Next year is now this year, and excitement is again high in Bozeman. The Cats open the season at home on Thursday night against Chadron State and they are ranked No. 4 in the first TSN/FCS Poll. They were also picked by both the media and the Big Sky Conference coaches to win the league championship this season, and they return a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball.

That talent starts with junior quarterback DeNarius McGhee, who has started every game the last two seasons. A year ago, McGhee threw for 2,799 yards and 24 scores, but he did lose favorite target and all-Big Sky performer Elvis Akpla to graduation.

But the backfield is where the Cats can do the most damage. MSU is breaking in a relatively new and young offensive line, but the trio of Cody Kirk, Tray Robinson and Orenzo Davis, who sat out the 2011 season due to academics, could be one of the deadliest ground games in the FCS this season. And it will only serve to make McGhee even more dynamic, as he still has wideouts Tanner Bleskin and Everett Gilbert to throw to, along with talents Jon Ellis and Kruz Siewing, a former Hi-Line prep start.

"I'm excited about our running back situation," Ash said, "But dreading the reality of it in the fall when I know there just aren't enough footballs there. We have a lot of really good players at that position,

"We were pretty good last year," he continued about the offense. "We did a lot of good things. To me, the point is not that we have to be better this year than we were last, but we have to keep doing the same things well that we have in the past. We have to continue to be balanced."

If the Cats are going to be better than a 10-3 2011 campaign, it may be because of an improved defense. That's not to say MSU was bad defensively last season, as the Cats were at or near the top of the Big Sky in most defensive categories. But with eight full-time starters back, including Buck Buchanan nominee Zack Minter at defensive tackle, MSU could possess one of the best defenses in the FCS, to go along with an already potent offense. Joining Minter on the line is end Brad Daly, who led the conference in sacks last season, as well bandit Caleb Schreibeis, who added seven sacks last season. Jody Owens, the Big Sky's preseason defensive MVP is also back as is MSU's entire starting secondary from last season, including senior shutdown corner Darius Jones.

MSU will also get all-conference linebacker Alexi Grosulak back at some point this season, and overall, the Cats are as experienced and deep on defense as they've been in some time. Punter Rory Perez and top return man Shawn Johnson also return on what is an all-around start-studded Cats' roster.

However, with such a loaded roster, an expanded stadium and momentum built up from two great seasons prior, expectations are as high as they've ever been in Bozeman. Yet, there are concerns. MSU plays a tough schedule, including hosting S.F. Austin at home, and a regular-season ending trip to Missoula for the annual Brawl of the Wild in between. There's also new faces in the Big Sky this season in Cal Poly, North Dakota, U.C. Davis and Southern Utah, and while MSU won't see all of them, the new schedule will only make it tougher for the Cats to repeat as conference champions.

Still, Ash is proud of what his program has accomplished over the last few years, and he isn't shying away from the high expectations hovering over Bobcat Stadium this fall.

"High expectations mean you've done something good in the past, and that's a good thing," Ash said. "And it means you've got good players in the program. It doesn't guarantee you anything, but it sure is nice and it gives us some confidence."

MSU opens its season Thursday night at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman. The Cats will take on NCAA DII Chadron State at 7:05 p.m. The game can be seen locally on Max Media as well.

Montana State junior running back Cody Kirk is one of 17 starters returing for the Bobcats in 2012. Montana State is picked to capture the Big Sky Conference title this season.

2012 Bobcat Schedule

Aug. 30 vs Chadron State

Sept. 8 at Drake

Sept. 15 vs S.F. Austin

Sept. 22 vs Northern Colorado

Sept. 29 at Southern Utah

Oct. 6 at U.C. Davis

Oct. 13 vs Eastern Washington

Oct. 27 vs North Dakota

Nov. 3 at Sac. State

Nov. 10 vs Portland State

Nov. 17 at Montana


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