BOZEMAN — Having a Week 3 bye means Montana State’s offense must wait to carry on its renaissance from last Saturday against South Dakota State.
The Bobcats might get a little antsy, though they won't be twiddling their thumbs.
“After last Saturday you’d like to line up and play again and get this thing going,” offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong said. “But this is where the bye is, so it just kind of is what it is at this point.”
Though it wasn’t enough to propel the Bobcats to victory — SDSU prevailed 31-27 — the offense rolled up 491 total yards and 27 first downs, including 311 yards and four touchdown passes by quarterback Chris Murray. It was far and away Murray's best career performance.
Coach Jeff Choate said the early bye is not such a bad thing for his team, particularly as it continues to calibrate the running game.
Sure, the Bobcats rushed for 180 yards and averaged five yards per carry against the Jackrabbits, but most of that came from the dual-threat Murray. The sophomore rushed for 107 yards on 17 attempts, an average of 6.3 per carry. The running backs — Logan Jones, Troy Andersen and Edward Vander — averaged 3.8 yards on 17 carries.
Choate indicated that the between-the-tackles performance by the running backs (in conjunction with the offensive line) isn’t where it needs to be.
In a perfect world, by virtue of his coaching DNA, Choate said the Bobcats would “pound people and take their souls and have fun doing (it), but that’s probably not who we are right now.”
During an interview Tuesday afternoon, center Alex Neale said he broke the ring finger on his left hand against South Dakota State. He also said he broke the same finger on his right hand during a game at Sacramento State last season, an injury that is still somewhat problematic.
The fingers on both of his hands were densely taped, though he’ll take advantage of the bye week to rest and heal.
Neale said Murray’s performance against South Dakota State was “incredible,” which is an appropriate description: Murray finished with 418 yards of total offense.
Armstrong said he never expected Murray to drop back and throw the ball 42 times against SDSU.
“I would have told you you were crazy,” said Armstrong, MSU’s first-year play-caller.
“We need to consistently still work on the run game and get to being multidimensional,” he said. “I thought we ran the ball effectively at times Saturday, but that’s going to be very important for us moving forward in conference play.”
Through two games, MSU’s running backs have 123 yards on 32 carries, an average of 3.8 per rush. Vander’s 13 attempts lead the team, while Andersen has 11 carries, though the true freshman from Dillon is working through a minor shoulder injury.
Granted, the Bobcats have gone up against two very physical defensive lines in Washington State and South Dakota State, so those aforementioned rushing numbers probably aren’t a pinpoint display of what the offense is capable of while striving for balance.
But it won’t get any easier going forward, as MSU prepares for its conference opener Sept. 23 at North Dakota.
Choate said some of the inconsistency in the interior line is “showing up big time in some critical situations,” and Neale said he and guards Jake McFetridge (on the left side) and the rotation of Caleb Gillis and Taylor Tuiasosopo (on the right) are adjusting accordingly in advance of the game at UND, which figures to be another physical contest.
“It just means we have to step up to the plate and accept the challenge,” Neale said.
Vander, a transfer from Saddleback College in California, has shown flashes of his value through two games, and continues to be a promising option in the running game based on prior performance. Vander had 1,185 rushing yards, 467 receiving yards and scored 18 touchdowns last fall at Saddleback.
The 205-pound Vander said Murray’s awakening as a passer was only a matter of time. Based on the work Murray had done in the offseason with quarterbacks coach DeNarius McGhee to atone for last year’s struggles, that’s a fair assessment.
The Bobcats will continue to put an emphasis on sharpening the ground attack.
“The passing game is pretty open right now because people don’t think we can throw the ball,” Vander said. “But once we get the run game down fluently I think everything will be open.”
“It felt good to get the offense going. Against Washington State we couldn’t do anything, really,” Vander said. “I think after the South Dakota State game, it feels good to just get the offense going in general and put points on the board.”