BOZEMAN — Jeff Choate woke up Sunday morning, took a gander at the scores from the second round of the FCS playoffs and was struck by the fact that three opponents from Montana State’s 2017 schedule had marched into the quarterfinals.
MSU, in Choate’s second year as coach, lost to South Dakota State, Weber State and Kennesaw State by a combined 14 points. All three of those teams will play this weekend for berths in the semifinals.
But that was, essentially, the story of the Bobcats’ 5-6 season: A litany of trying contests and a slew of games in which they couldn’t get over the hump.
Their average margin in six defeats was just 9.7 points — and that includes a 31-point loss at FBS Washington State in the season opener. MSU dropped four games by eight or fewer points.
That reality left the players wondering what might have been.
“I think we’ve got a lot of guys that are angry to a certain degree about how things went, because they feel like we could still be playing,” Choate said Wednesday. “And I think that’s where you need to get.
“You have to be realistic about where you’re at and then you have to set high goals, and I think now we can stand in front of (our) guys and say, ‘OK, let’s talk about some things that are maybe a little bit more lofty than what we have in the past.’ We’ve been very competitive, and now it’s time for us to take the next step.”
The Bobcats know where they want to go. The question is, how do they get there? Choate, in particular, pointed to four factors:
Third downs: MSU’s offense was among the best in the Big Sky Conference at moving the chains on third-down plays, converting at a 43 percent clip. It was a different story for the defense, which struggled to get off the field on third downs and finished second-to-last in the league by allowing opponents to convert 49 percent of the time.
The ability to affect the quarterback and play tighter coverage in the secondary, Choate said, are priorities. MSU's defense had just 17 sacks, only two more than the year prior.
Turnover margin: The Bobcats protected the football on offense much better in 2017. Their 12 giveaways were the second-fewest in the Big Sky. By contrast, MSU’s defense only forced 12 turnovers, tied for the fewest in the league. The team finished even in turnover margin — not bad, not great — but knows it needs to get more takeaways going forward.
Special teams: Jered Padmos’ high-level punting gave MSU a big boost as the year went on, but Choate said the Bobcats were “sketchy at times” while covering kicks weren’t good enough in the return game. Those areas will be addressed.
Offensive stability: This is the big one. “It’s 100 percent about consistency,” Choate said of the Bobcats’ offense. Third-down conversions played a role, but so did red-zone execution. MSU scored on 73 percent of its trips inside the 20 yard line, which ranked 12th in the 13-team Big Sky.
To that point, Choate said quarterback Chris Murray improved in his year-long quest to become a more polished passer but also said the true run/pass balance the Bobcats’ sought eluded them.
Murray became the first MSU quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, but his 51.5 completion percentage was a far cry from the 65 percent quarterbacks coach DeNarius McGhee wants.
“Chris had some amazing games and then had some lulls. I think he’s poised to take the next step, but we’ve got to provide competition for him,” Choate said.
“I think Tucker Rovig is a guy that’s going to push him, and we’ve got a variety of guys that we’re looking at right now to bring in to try to continue to elevate that level of competition at that position so that we can have championship-level quarterback play.”
Also, the case of two-way standout Troy Andersen will continue to be a topic of evaluation. Andersen, a true freshman, played both running back and linebacker to favorable results.
His prowess as a runner was obvious, but Choate suggested Andersen has a higher ceiling as a linebacker, though his function will probably remain fluid.
“He could play 65 or 70 plays for us on defense and still get 10 or 11 touches on offense, or he can get 20, 22 touches on offense and probably not be able to play defense because of the pounding that you’re going to take at (running back),” Choate said.
“Throughout his career here at Montana State he will have varied roles. But we need to find him a home so that he can maximize his potential at one of those spots. Certainly that’s an ongoing arm-wrestling match that takes place in the staff room daily.
“I feel like he’s got an opportunity to be a major impact guy on either side of the ball. I think his best position long-term is probably on defense. Now, that’s coming from a defensive guy. If you ask a guy on offense they might tell you something different.”