FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota State’s dominance was on full display Saturday, and Montana State didn’t have the horses to put up a legitimate fight in a 52-10 second-round playoff defeat.
Troy Andersen’s nickname around the Bobcat football offices is “Secretariat,” but the sophomore quarterback, seemingly unstoppable all season, didn’t have the gallop to make much of a dent in NDSU’s vaunted defense.
“They were better than us,” MSU receiver Kevin Kassis understated afterward.
Still, the Bobcats appeared to come away from the loss with a sense of encouragement for what they hope are better days. MSU entered the season with higher internal expectations, and it made good on those by making the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
“I think it’s a step. You’d love to have those leaps and bounds, but I think we made some really positive strides this year,” coach Jeff Choate said. “I’m really proud of this team, I’m really proud of their fight and leadership.”
Like all teams, the Bobcats faced their share of adversity in 2018, but they rallied to post their first winning season since 2014 and claim their first playoff victory since 2012. A few weeks ago, Choate described the season as "chaotic" because of its ebbs and flows.
Here is a look back at some key moments during a strange but ultimately successful campaign:
July 11: Murray ineligible
MSU lost quarterback Chris Murray when it was announced that he would be academically ineligible for the fall semester.
It was a significant loss: Murray had accumulated 4,359 yards of offense and accounted for 43 total touchdowns in two seasons as the starter.
Exacerbating the uncertainty at QB was a foot injury suffered by transfer Travis Jonsen when he slipped on ice during the winter, which kept him out of spring practice and curtailed the high hopes many had for him as a former four-star recruit to the University of Oregon.
Aug. 30: Andersen’s 1st start
Without Murray, the Bobcats needed to find a starter from a group of QBs that had never taken a Division I snap. During the summer Choate said Andersen, previously a running back and linebacker, would be included in the competition.
Andersen, a sophomore, established himself as the favorite early in fall camp and won the job for the season opener, a 26-23 home win over Western Illinois in which he rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
What followed was historic season. Andersen broke the Big Sky Conference record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,412) and set single-season school records for rushing touchdowns (21) and 100-yard rushing games (nine). Jonsen, meanwhile, became a valuable receiver and wildcat quarterback.
Sept. 9: Choate under the knife
Choate didn’t seem himself in the aftermath of a 45-14 loss at No. 3 South Dakota State in Week 2, a game in which Andersen barely played due to an injured left hand. It was later revealed that the third-year coach had to undergo an emergency appendectomy upon the team’s return to Bozeman.
“I kind of knew there was something wrong with me on Saturday and didn’t really know what it was,” Choate said a few days after the operation. “You take some Tums or think you have a sour stomach or whatever, and as the game went on, specifically after halftime, I knew I wasn’t quite there.
“Just (need to) try to be a little bit smarter about not burning the candle at both ends and try to get a little bit more rest.”
Oct. 21: Miller takes control
Despite Andersen’s ability to burn teams on the ground — and with the emergence of true freshman running back Isaiah Ifanse — MSU’s offense sputtered at midseason.
After a 34-24 loss at Weber State, during which the Bobcats produced just 221 total yards and seven first downs, Choate made the calculated decision to demote offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong, dismiss quarterbacks coach Bob Cole and promote receivers coach Matt Miller to the role of play-caller.
After Miller took over, MSU showed more offensive balance and a renewed willingness to throw the ball down the field while averaging 70 more yards of offense and nearly 30 points per game.
Nov. 17: ‘Miracle’ in Missoula
The Bobcats’ season looked like it was over on more than one occasion during their annual rivalry game against Montana. MSU trailed by 22 points in the second quarter, and despite rallying to take the lead the defense was pushed back on its own goal line as the Griz appeared poised to score the winning touchdown with 14 seconds left.
UM running back Adam Eastwood scored what would have been the winning touchdown, but Choate called a timeout just before the snap. The Griz handed the ball to Eastwood again on the ensuing play, but this time he was met by lineman Tucker Yates and linebacker Grant Collins and the ball popped out.
Derek Marks recovered the fumble and MSU held on to win in one of the most unlikely endings the rivalry has seen.
Nov. 24: Playoffs beckon
The win over Montana was the Bobcats’ third straight victory, which catapulted them into the playoffs with a 7-4 record. What seemed improbable following a loss at Idaho State on Oct. 27 became reality.
MSU hadn’t won a postseason game in six years, but it smacked Incarnate Word 35-14 at home in the first round to clear that hurdle under Choate. The Bobcats suffered a bad beat-down at the hands of six-time FCS champion North Dakota State in the second round on Saturday, but MSU already has its eyes on 2019.
“I think we’re all really excited” for next season, Andersen said. “This one hurts but it provides a little extra motivation.”