GRAND FORKS, N.D. — It’s been an eager couple weeks at Montana State.
The Bobcats suffered their first Big Sky Conference loss their last time out — a 34-21 defeat to Sacramento State at home on Oct. 12 — and were left to stew about it through their bye last week.
It left the Bobcats to do some self-evaluation while itching to return to the field and get back to the business of achieving their goals, all of which are still in front of them.
No. 9-ranked MSU (5-2, 2-1 Big Sky) gets that chance Saturday when it faces FCS independent and former Big Sky rival North Dakota (4-3) on the road at the Alerus Center. The game is scheduled to kick off at 11 a.m. Mountain time, and will be broadcast statewide on ABC/FOX Montana and on SWX in the Billings area.
Senior cornerback Damien Washington, ever the optimist, was quick to point out that it wasn’t too long ago that the Bobcats started 0-6 in league play. That was in 2016.
That was then, this is now, and MSU is still in the thick of things.
“We’re not panicking,” Washington said this week. “We drop a game this season and people think it’s the end of the world. We’ve been in way worse scenarios. It’s just one game.
“If we take advantage of the opportunities we get and take every team serious, we’ll put ourselves in position to win the Big Sky or make a playoff run.”
But that doesn’t make this game against UND any less meaningful. Or dangerous.
Though the Fighting Hawks are no longer in the Big Sky — they’re in their final year as an independent before transitioning full-time into the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020 — the outcome will nonetheless count towards Montana State’s standing in the league.
The Bobcats, currently in a three-way tie for third place with Montana and Eastern Washington (who play each other Saturday), need a win in order to keep pace with the upper tier of the conference.
North Dakota also has the goal of qualifying for the FCS playoffs, but with another loss might be on the outside looking in entirely. This game is just as important for UND.
“I think it’s really big. I think our players understand it’s big, our staff knows it’s big,” Fighting Hawks coach Bubba Schweigert said. “This is a really good football team that we’re playing against, and to earn a ‘W’ against them would really help us on our resume at the end of the year.
“We need to be ready to go because we have a lot of respect for this Bobcat team and their coaches. They do a very good job. It’s going to be a real challenge for us but we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
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What the Fighting Hawks have going for them is home-field advantage, which has resulted in a 3-0 mark at the Alerus Center.
“Tough environment,” MSU coach Jeff Choate said. “They’re playing very, very well at home. They’re a completely different team (at home). It’s almost like watching two different teams at times.”
The Bobcats were beaten soundly by Sacramento State, a team that is proving to be one of the great surprises in the Big Sky this season. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have their chances.
MSU’s offense turned the ball over early and wasn’t able to capitalize on scoring opportunities late, while the defense couldn’t solve quarterback Kevin Thomson and Sacramento State’s offensive concepts.
Washington said the defensive mindset is “more urgent. As you’ve kind of seen the past couple games we haven’t really been getting (takeaways). So it’s kind of more of an emphasis of, we have to stop the explosive (plays) and get the ball back.”
That could have a big impact.
Spotlight on: Nate Ketteringham
North Dakota isn’t built quite so much around a smashmouth running game this year as it has been in the recent past, and part of the reason is because quarterback Nate Ketteringham has helped to diversify the offense.
Ketteringham is an accurate downfield thrower and is also adept at operating the run-pass option schemes that have become so prevalent across the board.
“We got worked over pretty good on some RPOs a couple weeks ago against Sac State,” Choate said.
Ketteringham has played very well at home, where he completes nearly 75% of his passes. It's part of the reason UND is yet to lose there.
“He has a really good arm, a really good feel for the offense that they run,” Washington said. “He’s a good quarterback. He can hurt us if we allow him to and if we come in thinking that he’s just another guy.”
The Bobcats have a history with Ketteringham: When he was the quarterback at Sacramento State in 2016, Ketteringham led a frantic fourth-quarter comeback to beat MSU in the final seconds.