GREELEY, Colo. — There was no way to predict that three defensive players would end up accounting for three touchdowns for Montana State on Saturday.
But in the end, that was only window dressing.
What led the No.-12 ranked Bobcats to a 45-14 beat down of Northern Colorado on a picturesque 75-degree day at Nottingham Field was an unrelenting ground attack and a savvy defensive game plan.
MSU, the No. 1 rushing team in the Big Sky Conference, churned out a season-high 451 yards on 46 carries while pounding Northern Colorado’s defense with an average of 9.8 yards per attempt.
With tailback Isaiah Ifanse home in Bozeman dealing with a lingering lower-body injury, Logan Jones collected 122 yards and a touchdown to set the pace. Lane Sumner produced 72 yards and another score.
MSU attacked the perimeter of the Bears’ defense with an array of wide receiver sweeps, then took advantage between the tackles as it became more available.
“We talked about softening up the edges,” said Sumner, who was one of 11 Bobcats to carry the football on Saturday. “We did a lot of outside runs instead of the typical inside, straightforward, downhill game. That kind of opened stuff up in the second half and we were able to crease them.”
“This is a team that plays really stingy run defense from tackle to tackle,” Bobcats coach Jeff Choate said of UNC. “It doesn’t really matter who they’ve played, whoever’s tried to run right at them it hasn’t been that effective.
“We knew coming in that that’s what we do, and we had to manufacture a way to get some good yardage. Coming in that was the plan: Soften the edges and then counterpunch as the game went along.”
The Bobcats got it going early and scored on their first possession. MSU took a 7-0 lead on a goal-line lob pass from Troy Andersen to 6-foot-6, 300-pound defensive lineman Jason Scrempos.
Andersen took a shotgun snap, made it appear he was going to run the ball, and then leaped to softly drop it into Scrempos’ hands at the back of the end zone.
“We’ve had it marinating for a while. It was wide open,” Andersen said of the play. “I almost threw it out of the back of the end zone. Luckily I didn’t and he came down with it.”
Scrempos, who spiked the ball and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, was one of three MSU defenders to hit pay dirt.
Andersen, primarily an outside linebacker, ran for an 11-yard touchdown in the second quarter, while fellow linebacker Callahan O’Reilly rumbled 73 yards for a TD on a fake punt in the third.
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“I think we do a good job of using our entire roster to benefit us, and certainly Troy is a big piece of that,” Choate said. “Callahan on the fake punt — that was designed to get a first down, not a touchdown.
“I did call him out on his speed early in the week, and I think he wanted to show he has a little bit more than I might think he did. So great job by him of executing.”
Jones ripped off a 57-yard run on the first play of the third quarter, then capped that drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to put the Bobcats ahead 31-7. Sumner’s touchdown came on a 16-yard run early in the fourth.
Bobcats quarterback Tucker Rovig threw a second-quarter TD to tight end Derryk Snell, and kicker Tristan Bailey hit a 44-yard field goal before halftime.
MSU’s goal on defense was to disguise its coverage to confuse veteran Bears quarterback Jacob Knipp and then attack with pressure. The scheme played out how the Bobcats imagined.
Northern Colorado didn’t score an offensive touchdown until the fourth quarter when Knipp hit wideout Noah Sol with an 8-yard touchdown pass, but by then the game was decided.
The Bears got their other touchdown on an interception return by linebacker Brooks Talkington in the first quarter.
Andersen and defensive end Bryce Sterk each sacked Knipp. Safety JoJo Henderson intercepted a deflected Knipp pass in the second half.
“He’s a good player,” Andersen said of Knipp, who is a sixth-year senior. “That’s why we really tried to disguise our coverages and get him confused, get him off schedule. If we could get him behind the sticks we knew we had a chance to play well today.”
MSU outgained the Bears 564 to 289 in total offense. Northern Colorado produced just 44 rushing yards.
With the victory, the Bobcats improved to 7-3 overall and 4-2 in Big Sky play. The Bears dropped to 2-8 and 2-4.
Montana State travels to play UC Davis next week before returning home for the 119th meeting with archrival Montana.
“Try to get into the playoffs,” linebacker Josh Hill said of the road ahead. “We’ve just got to take it one game at a time and focus on those little things and the rest falls into place, especially on defense.”
NOTES: Andersen’s rushing touchdown was the 32nd of his career. … WR and wildcat QB Travis Jonsen did not play. … WR Willie Patterson returned to MSU’s lineup, playing for the first time since Week 2 against Southeast Missouri. … The Bobcats have won nine in a row over Northern Colorado dating back to the 2008 season.