BOZEMAN — When it comes to pressuring quarterbacks, defensive end Bryce Sterk and Montana State have been among the best in the Big Sky Conference.
The Bobcats came into Saturday’s game against Sacramento State with 15 team sacks, and Sterk’s 8.5 QB sacks were (and still are) the most in the league. But the lack of a consistent pass rush was an obvious detriment in MSU’s 34-21 homecoming loss to the Hornets at Bobcat Stadium.
There were a number of factors at play.
First, Montana State coach Jeff Choate conceded afterward that his Bobcats simply lost the battle up front. But Sac State quarterback Kevin Thomson’s ability to quickly get rid of the ball — and with accuracy — gave the Bobcats fits.
Thomson finished with 260 yards on 23-of-30 passing, and three of his five total touchdowns came through the air. MSU wasn’t able to lay its mitts on Thomson, and scarcely got him out of rhythm.
It’s a pattern for the Hornets: Through six games, Sacramento State has allowed just six sacks.
“We knew (Thomson) can get the ball out quickly. We knew they don’t give up a lot of sacks,” Sterk said. “Feeling like you’re not factored into that situation is definitely hard to handle. But he did a good job of picking apart our defense. Hats off to him on that.”
“He was very accurate when he threw the ball,” Choate said. “When we blitzed it was mostly run-down pressure to try to get them off schedule. Really, they don’t give up a lot of sacks anyway because they do get the ball out so quickly.
“It’s a little bit of an exercise in futility sometimes bringing a lot of pressure against this group.”
The loss snapped Montana State’s five-game winning streak and is likely to push the team downward in this week’s STATS Top 25 FCS poll, which will be released on Monday. The Bobcats (5-2, 2-1 Big Sky) were ranked No. 6 last week, their highest ranking in six years.
Sacramento State (4-2, 2-0) is likely to move into the poll for the first time this season.
“We were beat by a better team today,” Choate said. “There’s no question about that.”
3rd down story
The Hornets ability to consistently move the chains on third down also proved problematic for MSU.
Sacramento State converted nine of the 13 third-down plays it faced, and at one point was successful on six in a row. Four of the Hornets’ nine conversions were of six yards or more.
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Thomson moved the sticks six times on third down with pass completions, which compounded the frustration.
Prior to Saturday, MSU’s defense had limited teams to a 33% success rate on third down. Sac State converted at a nearly 70% clip. Bobcats safety JoJo Henderson said it was “demoralizing.”
“My hat’s off to (Thomson). He really made plays,” Henderson said. “He threw the ball where it needed to be, even when guys were covered.
“Being the deep safety, watching us get picked apart, it’s tough see, especially when we do so well on first and second down and you get them off schedule, get them in third and 8-plus and we know that they’re going to pass.”
Quarterback Tucker Rovig was hit and intercepted on Montana State’s first drive, and then the Bobcats gave the ball up near midfield on their next possession when they gambled by going for it on fourth down as Travis Jonsen was stopped for a 5-yard loss.
They also were unable to score from the goal line early in the fourth quarter. In the end, MSU scored points on three of its 10 possessions. The offense rushed for 141 yards, roughly 120 fewer than its per-game average.
The Bobcats’ offense perhaps looked their best late in the game, as Rovig found wideout Kevin Kassis in the corner of the end zone with a 2-yard touchdown pass with 1:41 remaining. Rovig completed 6 of 10 throws for 73 yards on that drive.
“I thought Tucker operated our two-minute stuff late in the game, but that might be the only bright spot, to be honest with you,” said Choate, whose team has a bye this week.
“We did not play well today, and that’s my responsibility as a head coach and we’ll definitely improve that. Unfortunately we’ve got to live with it for two weeks now.”
The Bobcats have an extra week to prepare for what is now a huge game Oct. 26 at North Dakota. UND is no longer a member of the Big Sky Conference, but the game will count toward MSU’s record in the league standings.
The team will continue to work to improve on starting games faster. Through seven weeks, MSU is being outscored 49-38 in the first quarter and 115-94 overall in the first half.
The Bobcats are outscoring teams 137-75 in the second half.
“We just can’t spot teams points. We did that again” on Saturday, Sterk said. “We’ve given teams opportunities that we shouldn’t give and kind of shot ourselves in the foot. I think we just need to realize that we need to start fast and not have those blunders.”