BOZEMAN — Third-year Montana State coach Jeff Choate raved about Tyrone Fa’anono’s potential throughout fall camp. Now six games into the season, Choate’s initial perception has manifested itself on the field.
Fa’anono, MSU’s 6-foot-2, 270-pound pass-rushing, run-stuffing defensive end, is in the midst of what Choate said is an all-conference-type season. Fa’anono has proven to be a scourge to opponents with dogged pursuit of quarterbacks and ball-carriers alike.
“I think he’s at times been unblockable,” Choate said this week as MSU (4-2, 2-1 Big Sky) gets set to face No. 7 Weber State (4-2, 2-1) on Saturday on the road.
“He plays the run equally as well as he does the pass, and that’s something that not a lot of guys that are edge guys do.”
It’s been a long journey to this point for Fa’anono, a product of Oaks Christian High School in Oxnard, California, who, believe it or not, has been making plays for the Bobcats since the 2014 season.
To his credit, Fa’anono has stuck it out through position changes, separate foot and knee injuries and a coaching change to become one of the team’s most feared defenders in his final collegiate season.
Fa’anono has cherished his time as a Bobcat, saying it has helped define him off the field as much as on it.
“It’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever had in my life, and I’m thankful for it,” he said.
Fa’anono made an impact as a true freshman in 2014 under previous coach Rob Ash, helping the Bobcats reach the FCS postseason. He continued to develop the following year, starting eight games and registering three quarterback sacks.
Choate was hired after the 2015 season and along the way Fa’anono was moved from defensive end to a new “Buck” rush end position, which forced him out of his comfort zone as a bigger-bodied defender. Then, the injuries started piling up.
He missed the 2016 season after undergoing surgery due to a torn ligament in his right foot. He broke his left foot during spring ball in 2017, and then gutted out the end of that season despite a sprained MCL in his knee.
Early in his career, Fa’anono thought he was capable of more. He certainly had a similar feeling as it’s progressed.
“I didn’t get the reps I wanted freshman year. Sophomore year it was kind of the same thing. Then we bring in the new coaches and I was able to start fresh,” he said.
“And then right when they said, ‘You’re the guy,’ I got injured,” Fa’anono said.
The arrival of University of Washington transfer rush end Bryce Sterk last winter allowed Fa’anono to transition back to his more-natural defensive end position, where he is obviously most comfortable.
Fa’anono’s numbers don’t necessarily scream greatness at this point — so far he has accumulated 26 tackles (three for loss) and two sacks — but they don’t tell the full story.
You have to simply consider Fa’anono’s presence at defensive end. His pass-rushing and ball-chasing antics have helped make the Bobcats’ line the best position group on their defense. Perhaps the No. 1 benefactor is Sterk, who also appears in line for postseason honors.
Sterk, a 6-5, 250-pounder, already has five sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. The latter number is tied with Montana linebacker Dante Olson for the most in the Big Sky Conference.
Good with his hands and hips, Fa’anono might be a bit more of a finesse rusher than Sterk, who considers himself to be more brutish. Together, they spell trouble for opposing offenses.
That holds true for the entire line.
“I know Sterk is going to be on the other end doing his job, and if we both do our job the correct way we know the guys on the inside will be making more plays,” said Fa’anono, alluding to teammates up front such as Tucker Yates, Zach Wright, Chase Benson and Derek Marks. “Just kind of feeding off everybody on the D-line. Being able to trust everybody on the line helps a lot.”
“It helps me because I can be more confident,” Sterk offered. “I know I just have to do my job because I know Tyrone is going to do his job.”
As a defense, the Bobcats have made 40 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, a number that includes 12 quarterback sacks.
Last week in a 24-23 victory over Idaho, Fa’anono and Co. made life tough on quarterback Mason Petrino, who was frequently forced out of the pocket and into duress.
The same can be said for the season opener against Western Illinois, when Fa’anono and Sterk helped seal the win by relentlessly pressuring QB Sean McGuire.
“That D-line room has all kind of pushed each other to rise together,” Choate said. “There’s a lot of competition in there. They’re hunting. Mason was running for his life a lot on Saturday, so those guys are all about trying to get after that quarterback, but it starts by them doing their job on first and second down.”
The Bobcats will be tested in that phase against Weber State, which makes no bones about its desire to establish the run on offense and stay ahead of the chains.
It will also be a challenge for MSU to match the Wildcats defensively: Weber State boasts what Choate has described as the best defense in the entire FCS.
Fa’anono knows the Bobcats must answer the bell. By all indications and declarations, it will be a grueling physical matchup, and could be low-scoring.
“It’s going to be really physical. They’re a running team,” Fa’anono said. “They’re going to run downhill, try to hit us in the mouth, but we’ve just got to out-physical them, and towards the end of the game it’s going to come down to who wants it the most.”