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Bryce Sterk

Montana State defensive end Bryce Sterk leads the nation with 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.

BOZEMAN — With 3.5 quarterback sacks in a 56-21 blowout win over Norfolk State on Saturday, Montana State defensive end Bryce Sterk raised his FCS-leading sack number to 8.5, which already matches his total from the 2018 season.

Sterk, a senior, is averaging more than two sacks per game and leads the nation by one sack over Houston Baptist defensive end Andre Walker.

But it doesn’t stop there. Sterk also leads the FCS with 11.5 tackles for loss. No one else in the country even has 10.

And when he’s not sacking quarterbacks or making stops behind the line of scrimmage (or otherwise), Sterk is flushing them, hitting them and helping the Bobcats’ defensive line collapse the pocket and leverage ball-carriers.

Sterk, a hulking, 260-pound edge rusher who dropped down to Montana State from the University of Washington before the 2018 season, is dominating offensive linemen like someone that has no business playing at the FCS level, and his impact is not lost on Bobcats coach Jeff Choate.

“He’s playing at a really high level right now,” Choate said on Saturday. “I can’t say enough about the job that guy’s doing, really our entire defensive front. If I’m a quarterback, I’m probably a little nervous.”

MSU’s defense came into the Norfolk State game wary of Spartans quarterback Juwan Carter, who gives defenses trouble with both with his arm and his legs. Carter threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns (more on that later) but on more than one occasion was slow to get up after taking big hits from Sterk.

Sterk finished with a team-high 10 tackles and a staggering five tackles for loss. He was also credited with two QB hurries.

Both Sterk and Choate gave particular credit to tackle Derek Marks and fellow edge defender Amandre Williams, also a Washington dropdown, for helping Sterk accumulate such gaudy numbers.

“Every week is different with the O-line,” said Sterk, who shared a sack with Williams on Saturday. “Every week we see weakness that we try and exploit, and we’ve been doing really good with that so far.

“Derek, it doesn’t show on paper but he is affecting the quarterback so much in the pass game. Same with Amandre. Getting to the quarterback and dominating the line of scrimmage has been huge for us this season.”

Right now, Sterk is firmly in the conversation for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given each year to the top defensive player in the FCS.

Unsung hero

The Bobcats’ offense rushed for 449 yards against Norfolk State and set school records with 26 first downs achieved on the ground and by putting three running backs — Lane Sumner, Shane Perry and Logan Jones — in the 100-yard column.

Quarterback Tucker Rovig also had a banner day in his first start of the season, throwing for 221 yards and four touchdowns.

But receiver Travis Jonsen played a huge role for the Bobcats by catching a touchdown pass and also lining up as a Wildcat quarterback and rushing for 60 yards while keeping the defense honest with a series of ball fakes off of sweep motion.

Jonsen also pitched the ball to Sumner on an old-fashioned option play that went for a 3-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Jonsen gives MSU’s offense an added element, and it was apparent on Saturday.

“He really impacted the game, probably a lot more than the stat sheet would even indicate. He gets back there at quarterback and you know you’re going to have to defend him as a runner,” Choate said.

“Especially with Troy (Andersen) out, we had to get that package. We still feel like that’s an important part of our offense. Really, Travis’ ability to operate that was critical to our success.”

Don’t get Cook-ed

Montana State (3-1) opens Big Sky Conference play this week when Northern Arizona (2-2) visits Bobcat Stadium on Saturday. The Lumberjacks are led by standout quarterback Case Cookus, who has already thrown 12 touchdown passes and averages 344.2 yards per game through the air.

Choate indicated that his team gave up too many passing yards to Norfolk State (243). For as many times as Sterk and Co. hit him, Carter still found throwing lanes through MSU’s defense.

“We’ve got some things we’ve got to clean up in the back end,” Choate said after the game. “We’ve got Case Cookus coming to town next week, and if we have pass coverage like we did today it’s going to be a long day for the Bobcats. So we’ll have our guys’ attention on that for sure.”

An incredibly accurate passer, Cookus is a fifth-year senior at NAU. He has thrown for nearly 9,400 yards and has tossed 86 touchdowns with a completion percentage of 63% for his career.

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Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac

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