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2018 Cat-Griz Preview: Bobcats poised to make a big run

 

August 29, 2018

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Troy Andersen runs the ball during the 2017 Cat-Griz game in Bozeman. Andersen is now the Bobcats' starting quarterback as MSU opens its season Thursday night against Western Illinois at Bobcat Stadium.

The Montana State Bobcats have been rebuilding since the day Jeff Choate stepped foot on MSU's campus in Bozeman. It's been a long, winding process, and one that has not produced as many wins as Bobcat fans would like.

But as the Bobcats enter the 2018 season, the feeling around Bobcats Stadium is one of excitement, and the sentiment seems to be that the rebuilding should be done. The feeling is the Cats are ready to win now, and win a lot. In Choate's first two seasons, the Cats lost a ton of close, and heartbreaking games on their way to records of 5-6 in 2017 and 4-7 in 2016. MSU also suffered a losing season in Rob Ash's final year at the helm, so the Cats are not only looking for an improvement this season, but a big one.

"I'm excited," Choate said. "I like this team. I think we have a lot of good players at every position. The past couple of years, we played a lot of young guys. But now, in year three for us, I think we're a much more mature football team. Guys are locked into this program, they know what's expected out of them and what we're trying to achieve."

Indeed, Montana State has the horses at nearly every position to prove the voters, who picked the Cats to finish eighth in the Big Sky this season, wrong. But one position will be noticeably different when MSU plays Western Illinois Thursday night in Bozeman - quarterback.

After two years as MSU's starter, Choate announced earlier this summer that the dynamic Chris Murray, who has guided Montana State to two straight wins over rival Montana, will miss this season due to academics. Initially, it was a shock and jolt to Bobcat Nation, but the quarterback position has cleared in fall camp. And it appears that super sophomore Troy Andersen, who played both running back and linebacker for the Cats a year ago and was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year, will be the guy to lead the Cats at QB this season. Andersen was a three-time All-Conference QB at Dillon High School, and it seems as though he has beaten out returning freshman Tucker Rovig, and Oregon transfer Travis Jonsen for the starting job.

"He will be a real challenge for opponents. He's just such an exceptional athlete. He's got size, he's got a good brain, he's going to be one of the fastest guys in this league," MSU DC Ty Gregorak said of Andersen.

And while Andersen has turned heads, and potentially solved MSU's QB dilemma, having him under center means he won't be a full-time running back for the Cats either. So those carries will likely go to a bevy of backs, including Karl Tucker II, Indiana transfer Tyler Natee and true freshman Isiah Ifanse among others. And while running the football is always at a premium for the MSU offense, it shouldn't be an issue no matter who carries the ball because Montana State returns one of the top offensive lines in the Big Sky anchored by three-year starter Alex Neale.

However, running the ball hasn't been an issue at MSU in recent years. With Murray leading the way, the Cats have been one of the top two rushing teams in the conference in each of the last two seasons. No, MSU needs a much more sound and reliable passing game to compliment its hard-nosed ground game, and that job will likely fall to Andersen, as well as star WR Kevin Kassis, a core of youthful receivers alongside him, as well as standout tight ends like Curtis Amos and Connor Sullivan.

MSU will also look to improve its offensive efficiency, as it finished near the bottom of the league last season, and in total yards and scoring the Cats were also sub-par, and that's something the Cats will want to correct this fall.

On the other side of the ball, though, MSU isn't looking to correct much. The Cats were one of the best defenses in the Big Sky a year ago, and it seems, the rich are only getting richer.

On the defensive line, stars like Zach Wright and Tucker Yates are back, as is DE Tyrone Fa'anono. Derek Marks is another veteran on the DL, while new additions Bryce Sterk (Washington) and Dante Sparaco (Colorado) only make a great DL better. MSU will also be outstanding in the secondary, with returning starters Jalen Cole and Tyrel Thomas returning at corner, as well as the tough Brayden Konkol at safety. Add in a healthy JoJo Henderson, Virginia Tech transfer Jahque Alleyene and a host of young, but talented, players, and the back end of MSU's defense could be as good as it gets in the Big Sky.

At linebacker, MSU lost two starters to graduation, including the great Mac Bignell, and it appears returning starter Josh Hill will be out with an injury, but the return of Grant Collins and a healthy Jacob Hadley should give the Cats enough there to be one of the top defenses not just in the Big Sky, but in all of the FCS.

"I'm telling you right now, our D line is going to be a problem for everybody that we play," Choate said.

Indeed, the Bobcats are loaded at every level of what is an already great defense, so that and the running game will certainly be MSU's bread and butter. But in a season that includes games against Missouri Valley powers WIU and South Dakota State, and a conference slate which includes Eastern Washington, Weber State and Idaho, as well as the always-big Cat-Griz game, the Bobcats are focused on something else to help them get over the hump they're trying so hard to master - win close games.

"I think it's about substance more than style. And that's who I am, I guess, more than anything. We have a saying that stats are for losers. It doesn't matter how many yards you put up, it's about how many points are on the scoreboard at the end of the game. My job is to coach us into a position to have a chance to win and their job is to go finish, and hopefully we've done a better job of getting our kids ready to go finish and win," Choate said. "I think our guys have the confidence that we can play with anybody. They know that if we go play our game, and we're physical and we take care of the football and we execute, that we're going to have a chance to win in the fourth quarter."

And with how close MSU came to doing just that a season ago, and with now a much more mature, veteran and talented roster, the Cats are ready - ready to explode. And they're more than ready to put the rebuilding job to bed, for good.

MSU opens its 2018 season against Western Illinois Thursday night in Bozeman. Kickoff inside Bobcat Stadium is set for 7 p.m.

Montana State Bobcats

Head Coach: Jeff Choate (9-13)

2017: 5-6, 5-3, T6th in Big Sky

Aug. 30 vs Western Illinois, 7 p.m. SWX

Sept. 8 at SDSU, 5 p.m. SWX

Sept. 15 vs Wagner, 1 p.m. SWX

Sept. 22 at Portland St., 3 p.m. SWX

Sept. 29 vs Eastern Washington, 1 p.m. ROOT

Oct. 13 vs Idaho, 2 p.m. ROOT

Oct. 20 at Weber State, 4 p.m. ROOT

Oct. 27 at Idaho State, 3:30 p.m. Eleven

Nov. 3 vs Cal Poly, 2 p.m. SWX

Nov. 10 vs N. Colorado, 1 p.m. ROOT

Nov. 17 at Montana, 12 p.m. ROOT

 

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