Jahque Alleyne

MSU's Jahque Alleyne celebrates a play in the second half. An Alleyne punt return late in the first half proved to be the turning point in MSU's 49-31 win over Northern Arizona on Saturday in Bozeman.

BOZEMAN — One play.

If the special promise of this season takes the Montana State Bobcats to the lofty heights they expect, they’ll point to what began as a mundane punt late in the second quarter.

Set the scene: The Bobcats are down 21-0 to Northern Arizona in their Big Sky Conference opener, and going nowhere fast. The Lumberjacks’ prolific offense is surging behind the accurate right arm of Case Cookus, who has been NAU’s starting quarterback since approximately 1962.

A growing stream of spectators from the announced crowd of 19,257 is starting to file away, unwilling to absorb the twin mountains of misery looming with a seemingly certain debilitating defeat and an apocalyptic winter death storm lurking somewhere to the west.

As NAU’s D.J. Arnson stood in punt formation in the shadow of his goal line, it was easy to picture a massive halftime exodus, the fans taking their rally caps — and voices — with them.

Arnson’s kick into a stiff wind bounced unexcitedly near the NAU 30 with Bobcat players steering clear and the Lumberjacks set to down it. MSU returner Jahque Alleyne eyed it for a moment, and when it took a fortuitous hop toward him he shifted into overdrive for one of those “No! No! No! … Yes! … Great job!” moments.

Alleyne fielded the ball in stride and skirted defenders all the way to the NAU 14 as a roar surged through the crowd.

One play later, the Bobcats scored their first touchdown. Shortly after that, they scored again when Coy Steel bounced free from a wince-inducing sandwich tackle and gathered himself enough to run the final 15 of the 49 overall yards into the end zone before going to his knees, laying on his back for several minutes and requiring an escort to the locker room.

Just like that, it was 21-14.

Anyone contemplating an early dinner downtown changed plans.

“That definitely gave us some juice when we needed it on the sideline,” MSU coach Jeff Choate said of Alleyne’s return.

The Bobcats had a brief hiccup just before halftime and had to make a big stand in the third quarter after Alleyne muffed a punt, and fell behind 31-14.

But the tone was set.

Thirty-five consecutive points later, the seventh-ranked Cats had a 49-31 victory over a dangerous opponent and had it in dominant fashion. More important, MSU (4-1) held court on its home turf — a must for any team planning to contend for a conference title.

“That’s all we needed,” MSU “wildcat” quarterback Travis Jonsen, an Oregon transfer who parlayed the Bobcats’ second-half dominance in the trenches for his first career 100-yard rushing game (105), said of Alleyne.

“We just needed to get points on the board, and when we got that we knew we had a lot of faith going into the second half.”

Said offensive tackle Lewis Kidd: “You never know where the spark is going to come from. You’ve got to be ready to capitalize on any mistakes or any big plays that we make.”

The Cats did just that. Their rally was no fluke.

MSU left the Lumberbacks gashed and gassed, and the visitors didn’t have altitude as an excuse. After all, their home base in Flagstaff is some 2,500 feet higher in elevation.

At one point in the second half, the Cats ran upwards of two dozen rushing plays in a row. With Jonsen or Troy Andersen in the wildcat and traditional QB Tucker Rovig set up out wide, they were signaling to the Axers exactly what was coming and dared them to stop it.

They couldn’t.

The Bobcats rushed 58 times for 340 net yards and 25 first downs.

“As usual, we keep chopping wood and carrying water and doing what we do,” Choate said.

If there was any nitpick on day that otherwise revealed MSU’s overall four-quarter strength, it was the performance of quarterback Tucker Rovig, who followed his big day against Norfolk State last week with a choppy effort on a windy afternoon.

Rovig was 11 for 23 for 106 yards, nearly half on the play to Steel. His pick-6 interception in the first quarter — the team’s first in five years, and the Cats’ first interception of the season — set an unnerving pace that initially threatened the trajectory of the game and, perhaps, the season.

“I don’t know if he was tight today, or the wind affected him,” Choate said. “I really have to have a conversation with Tucker about that. He wasn’t as relaxed in the pocket. He had plenty of time.”

Then again, Rovig’s discomfort allowed the Cats to show their versatility with Jonsen and Andersen, at times using both as MSU’s quarterback situation continues to be a marvel. Jonsen ran for two scores and Andersen for one, complementing two from Shane Perry and another when Rovig fell on a fumble in the end zone.

Football, as Choate noted, is a long game. It ebbs and flows. 

Alleyne's return was just one of roughly 200 plays.

Yet had the 21-0 score stood at halftime, an inevitable spectator exodus would’ve ensued, further hindering hopes of a comeback in an arena drained of energy.

Who’s to know?

“We were down 22-0 last year in a hostile place,” safety Brayden Konkol pointed out, referring to the Cats' comeback win at Montana. “We don’t necessarily know how, but we know someone is going to make a play. Someone is going to step up.”

On Saturday, that's precisely what happened, courtesy of Jahque Alleyne, and now the Cats can forge ahead in a season of special promise with their goals in hand thanks in large part to ... 

One play.

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