BOZEMAN — Last week’s 31-0 loss at FBS Washington State marked the first time Montana State was shut out in 11 years and the first time it was blanked in a season opener since 1988. But call a spade a spade: The Bobcats were decidedly overmatched against the Cougars, the 20th-ranked team in the Associated Press poll.
It doesn’t get that much easier this week as South Dakota State, the No. 4-ranked team in the FCS, invades Bobcat Stadium. But coach Jeff Choate and MSU are looking forward to seeing how they stack up against a top-tier team in their own subdivision.
The game, which is the Bobcats’ annual “Gold Rush” home opener, kicks off Saturday at 6 p.m.
“We stubbed our toe in Game 1 on offense and so we’ve got to rebound,” Choate said. “That doesn’t mean that we’ve got to go out and throw for 380 yards, but we’ve got to put ourselves in position to be competitive and win a game.”
“We’re not going to play a lot of blowout games here. For a little while, anyway,” he said. “A year or two down the road? Maybe. But right now we’ve got to drag them into deep water. We’ve got to make every game a fourth-quarter game. And then we’ll find out.
“I think it will be a fun day. And I think our kids will rise to the occasion.”
It’s easier said than done, perhaps, against SDSU. The Jackrabbits’ offense is loaded with skill, including dual-threat quarterback Taryn Christion, and receiver Jake Wieneke and tight end Dallas Goedert — both of whom are highly regarded NFL prospects.
Defensively they are led by middle linebacker Christian Rozeboom, who was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference freshman of the year last season.
“This is a real, live outfit,” Choate said. “You can tell it’s a mature program.”
Here are five storylines to follow as the Bobcats seek their first victory:
Pick your poison: The trouble SDSU’s offense gives opponents is due to terrific personnel. If you roll coverage to Wieneke, Goedert will beat you. If you focus on Goedert, Wieneke will burn you over the top. And Christion is a playmaker as a running quarterback, too.
The Jackrabbits beat Duquesne last week 51-13. Wieneke caught four touchdown passes.
MSU defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak remembers the Christion/Wieneke/Goedert trio well from his days at Montana, when the Grizzlies beat the Jackrabbits 24-17 in a 2015 playoff game.
“I thought they were good then,” Gregorak said. “But you can see their development and their growth. They’re a pretty well-oiled machine by now.”
Offensive rebound?: Left tackle Dylan Mahoney said MSU’s offense is “very eager” to prove itself. Quarterback Chris Murray was battered and bruised last week and unable to show any tangible improvements as a passer, which was not the case during fall camp.
Mahoney and MSU’s line lost the battle up front against Washington State. But Murray is confident in a bounce-back.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll see a tremendous amount of change in the o-line, specifically,” Murray said. “The holes will be there, they’ll give me enough time and I’ll give our playmakers a chance down the field this week.”
“I think this could (make) the season for us or break the season for us,” Murray added. “I’m really hopeful for this game. This is a really big, really big, really big game for us. We need to be focused and dialed in, and not have as (many) negative plays.”
Run-game options: Murray led the team with 17 rushing attempts against Washington State, but running backs Logan Jones, Troy Andersen and Edward Vander combined for 14 carries. Receiver Kevin Kassis had one, also.
MSU expects to utilize its depth at running back again this week. The game will be the second of Andersen’s young career. The true freshman from Dillon had nine carries for 33 yards against Washington State.
“I thought Troy did a solid job,” offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong said. “I wasn’t on the sideline but I understand he had some pretty big eyes. It wasn’t Billings Central/Beaverhead County for the state championship.
“A lot of teams show the most improvement between Game 1 and Game 2, and I think with Troy and a lot of our young guys that will be the case.”
Bryson McCabe: The game will have extra meaning for McCabe, MSU’s starting strong safety. McCabe began his career at South Dakota State in 2013, and was dorm roommates with Jackrabbits safety Nick Farina. Wieneke lived across the hall.
McCabe, who came to MSU in 2015 after a one-year stint at Iowa Western, was a second-team All-Big Sky Conference selection last season. He made had a career-high 13 tackles last week.
“Bryson ... it doesn’t matter who we play. He prepares very well and obviously is a guy that’s one of our better players,” Choate said. “There might be a little bit more for him (this week) just because he’ll have some familiarity with these guys, but I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal in terms of the overall grand scheme of things.”
Also of note: Jason Eck, MSU’s offensive line coach in 2015, is now the offensive line coach at SDSU.
Playing Big(nell): Keep an eye on Bobcats linebacker Mac Bignell as he chases the school record for forced fumbles. Bignell has forced eight fumbles in his career, which is tied for the all-time mark.
Bignell is also adding to his impressive tackles-for-loss total. His two TFLs against Washington State give him 37 for his career.
Few players chase the football like Bignell, which will be a key for the Bobcat defense on Saturday. Per MSU's sports information office, Bignell has led the Cats in tackles 11 times and recorded double-digit tackles 11 times.