FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Nick LaSane had his best game as a Bobcat on Saturday against No. 24 Northern Arizona, rumbling for a career-high 184 yards and a touchdown while averaging 9.7 yards per carry.
But LaSane was noticeably dejected after what was another agonizing loss for Montana State — this time a 37-36 defeat in which coach Jeff Choate elected to go for a two-point conversion that ultimately failed with 32 seconds left.
“We have a coach that believes in our offense enough to go for two, and I like it,” LaSane said outside of MSU’s locker room at Walkup Skydome. “We came up short, but I’m going to tell it like it is: The better team didn’t win today.”
It was another tight game, and another somber ending, but the Bobcats were in position to upset NAU thanks to a late drive that culminated in a 21-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Chris Murray to Kevin Kassis, which pulled them within one point on the scoreboard.
Sizing up the situation — the prospect of going to overtime against Lumberjacks quarterback Case Cookus, who had thrown for 314 yards, was not ideal — Choate did not hesitate to go for two.
The play was a run-pass option designed for Murray to roll to his right, but it became jumbled as the snap nearly hit Kassis, who was motioning left. It wasn’t a crisp takeoff, and Murray was immediately pressured.
After faking a handoff to Kassis, Murray’s pass to Troy Andersen fell incomplete.
Murray explained that the silent cadence MSU was using “kind of messed up the motion, kind of the timing of the play fake. We didn’t get much of a play fake, and so the edge defender rushing, he came straight at me instead of giving me time to roll out and have time.”
Choate stood by his decision to go for the win afterward.
“Essentially, we had two plays,” he said. “One was a pocket throw for Chris and the other one was kind of move the pocket and let him have a little bit of a run-pass option, and we went with that option. (We) had some motion off it, and I think that did kind of disjoint the play a little bit. They made the play and we didn’t.
“People are going to second guess things. That’s the nature of what I do. But I think there’s no doubt that was the right call in that circumstance under adverse conditions on the road.”
MSU recovered the ensuing onside kick, but it was deemed that the ball was touched before it crossed the 10-yard threshold.
The Bobcats were without starting cornerback Tyrel Thomas, who didn’t make the trip while serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules. They lost Thomas’ replacement, Jalen Cole, when Cole was disqualified for targeting in the third quarter.
Cookus, who was disqualified for targeting last week in a loss at Montana, exploited that depletion in the back end. Receiver Elijah Marks made nine catches for 123 yards, most of which came in the second half.
Cookus hit Chance Brewington for a 7-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The Bobcats were called for three pass interference penalties.
“His out routes were right on the money. He threw a good deep ball. You saw that today,” MSU safety Bryson McCabe said of Cookus. “We gave up too many explosive plays.”
The biggest play was a 75-yard touchdown run by NAU’s Joe Logan in the second quarter that put the Lumberjacks ahead 16-14, but the ensuing point-after kick was blocked by Tucker Yates, and McCabe scooped it up and took it all the way back for two points to tie the game before halftime.
It was Logan’s 2-yard touchdown run with 2:23 left in the fourth quarter that gave NAU the necessary cushion, although Murray marched the Bobcats 75 yards in 10 plays to put them in position to win it at the end.
MSU was ultimately undone by Cookus, who led the Lumberjacks’ offense to a 549-yard performance.
The Bobcats also had two roughing-the-punter penalties called on true freshmen, the second of which went against Lance McCutcheon and led to a 2-yard touchdown run by NAU’s Cory Young.
“Young freshmen making mistakes at critical times,” Choate said. “We didn’t know how many stops we were going to get on these guys. The (first) one was a wash — they didn’t get any points off it. The other one put them at midfield with a first down and they went down and scored.”
It was MSU’s seventh game against a ranked opponent this season. The Bobcats are now 1-6 in such games. The one-point margin of defeat adds to losses they’d already suffered by four (South Dakota State), eight (Weber State) and two (Kennesaw State) points.
The loss dropped the Bobcats to 4-6 overall and 4-3 in the Big Sky standings. NAU improved to 7-3 and 6-1 in the league, and kept pace in the chase for the conference crown, which will be decided this week.
MSU returns home to face Montana in the 117th Brawl of the Wild on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium, but it was too early to discuss the season finale for Choate.
“I think we’ll digest this and then talk about the Grizzlies on Monday,” he said.
NOTES: By virtue of being disqualified in the second half, Cole will have to sit out the first half against Montana. ... The last MSU player to return a botched PAT for a score was Steven Bethley during the 2013 season. ... Murray rushed for 85 yards to become the first MSU quarterback to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in a single season.