BOZEMAN — At 3-1, Montana State is in a good spot record-wise following a nonconference schedule that featured a little bit of everything: An opening-game loss against a Power Five opponent, a home victory over the 12th-ranked team in the FCS (at the time), a road win in a difficult environment over a Missouri Valley squad and a romp at home last week in which offensive records tumbled.
But for everything the Bobcats accomplished during their non-league slate, it all gets thrown out the window with the start of Big Sky Conference play this week.
MSU, now ranked No. 7 in the STATS Top 25 FCS poll, hosts Northern Arizona (2-2) on Saturday at 1 p.m., and coach Jeff Choate made perfectly clear that his team has hit the proverbial reset button.
“Maybe you can tell I’m a little bit more serious right now,” Choate said Monday during his weekly news conference.
“You get nothing for being 3-1 in nonconference. Our record’s 0-0 and it’s time to go to work. All the chips are on the table now. Every week is going to be a war. There’s no weeks off in the Big Sky Conference.”
Against NAU, now led by first-year coach Chris Ball, the Bobcats must contend with quarterback Case Cookus, who has been one of the Big Sky’s most accurate and prolific passers during his lengthy yet injury-marred career.
As a freshman in 2015, Cookus threw for 3,117 yards and 37 touchdowns, and won the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in the FCS. He missed all but four games the following year due a shoulder injury but returned in 2017 to post another 3,000-yard season with 22 TDs.
Cookus then missed all but two games last season with a broken collarbone but has since come back this year to throw for 1,377 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first four games.
Career-wise, Cookus is closing in on 9,500 passing yards. He has thrown for 86 total TDs.
“He’s seen it all,” Choate said. “There’s no mystery for the guy. If you try to disguise your coverage he’s going to find the hole. If you’re playing zone he’s just going to pick you apart. If you want to press him … the best ball the guy throws is the deep ball. He throws a beautiful deep ball. Puts a lot of air underneath it and lets his receivers adjust to it.
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“It’s going to be a challenge for sure. We’re going to have to score some points, because they are. They’re averaging 40 points a game.”
The Bobcats are 0-2 against NAU during Choate’s tenure so far, including a 37-36 loss in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2017, a game in which a two-point conversion attempt by MSU failed with 32 seconds left. Cookus threw for 314 yards and a touchdown in that game.
Montana State released its Week 5 depth chart on Monday, and Tucker Rovig is listed No. 1 at quarterback. That comes as little surprise on the heels of Rovig’s 221-yard, four-touchdown performance last week in a 56-21 victory over Norfolk State.
The Bobcats rushed for 449 yards in that game and put three running backs — Logan Jones, Lane Sumner and Shane Perry — in the 100-yard column for the first time ever. Their 26 rushing first downs also broke a school record.
But Rovig was a revelation in taking over as the starter for Casey Bauman, who threw for 405 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions but completed under 50% of his passes cumulatively in a loss at Texas Tech and in wins against Southeast Missouri and Western Illinois.
Choate said he ultimately made the decision to go with Rovig last week based on two primary factors.
“Accuracy and decision making,” Choate said. “When you’re not giving your open receivers opportunities, it’s time to kind of examine what’s going on. I think that was the No. 1 thing that led to that, (Rovig’s) decision making and his accuracy, so I think that showed up in the game, too.”
Rovig completed 21 of 27 passes against Norfolk State, and the Bobcats will need more of that this week, among other things.
“We know we’ve got a hugely talented player in Case Cookus, but he’s not the team,” Choate said.
“We’re going to have to stop the run, we’re going to have to do a good job in coverage, we’re going to have to move some of (NAU’s) active D-linemen off the ball, we’re going to have to be efficient in the pass game … there’s a lot of things that we’re going to have to do well to get a win.”