BOZEMAN — It had been more than a full calendar year between Big Sky Conference victories for Southern Utah, but the team finally rediscovered that winning feeling last week with a 59-34 home drubbing of Idaho State.
In between, the Thunderbirds (2-7, 1-4 Big Sky) had dropped nine consecutive league contests. Now they have something to build on as they get set for Saturday’s game against No. 14-ranked Montana State (5-3, 2-2) at Bobcat Stadium — a sentiment that hasn’t escaped MSU coach Jeff Choate.
“I think that they’re a very confident team coming off of that victory, without a doubt. As they should be,” Choate said. “I think they’re a dangerous team with a lot of momentum coming in.”
“It was an awesome feeling to win a football game,” Thunderbirds coach Demario Warren said in an SUU press release. “We haven’t done it in a while.”
Momentum is something the Bobcats are trying to reclaim for themselves.
After reeling off five consecutive victories and climbing as high as No. 6 in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll, MSU has since lost twice, including an exasperating 16-12 defeat last week at North Dakota, a game in which the offense failed to capitalize on opportunities and ultimately produced just one touchdown.
The defense performed well enough for the Bobcats to win, giving up its only touchdown on a double-pass trick play in the first quarter. The game was decided late in the fourth quarter when North Dakota blocked a punt in the end zone and recovered it for the go-ahead points.
Last week, MSU's defense did what it could.
“We try to get as much of a momentum swing in games for our offense so they can drive down the field. But things happen on each side of the ball,” said MSU safety Jahque Alleyne, who forced a fumble in the first quarter against UND that was recovered by linebacker Josh Hill.
“We do what we’ve got to. (If the) offense doesn’t capitalize we’ve just got to do it again and just keep giving them opportunities to move down the field and capitalize on what we give them.”
Montana State will be the fifth ranked opponent on Southern Utah’s schedule to this point of the season. Before beating Idaho State, the Thunderbirds lost competitive games to Weber State and UC Davis, which perhaps ultimately set them up for a breakout against ISU.
Quarterback Chris Helbig, a sophomore transfer from the junior college ranks, has accounted for 19 touchdowns (13 passing, 6 rushing) and his 2,284 passing yards are fourth-most in the conference.
With five total touchdowns, the Idaho State victory was Helbig’s best game of the year.
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“When he’s efficient, we’re in football games,” Warren was quoted. “We’re able to keep the ball on offense and our time of possession has shot up the last couple weeks and it’s been because of his ability to complete balls and make good decisions while leading our offense.”
“I think they have a pretty good offensive group,” said Bobcats defensive lineman Jason Scrempos. “The quarterback, he’s playing pretty good. I think people underestimate his mobility. We’ve got to be prepared for that and make sure we can contain him when we have to.”
Montana State’s defense has forced at least one turnover in 15 consecutive regular season games, and sits tied for fourth in the Big Sky in turnover margin with rival Montana at plus-4. The Bobcats’ offense has the fewest giveaways (7) in the conference.
Weber State, at plus-12, leads the league.
Southern Utah is middle-of-the-road at minus-1 in turnover margin.
“We need to continue to take the ball away,” MSU defensive lineman Derek Marks said, “but not be totally reliant on turnovers and be able to get off the field on third down consistently.
“Stopping the run was helpful for us last week, and that’s our No. 1 goal every week, stop the run and make teams one-dimensional and make teams have to drop back and throw the ball.”
Regardless of how they do it, the bottom line for the Bobcats this week is to simply win. Warren was quoted this week as saying MSU is “fighting for their playoff lives,” and that’s the truth.
With four games remaining, the Bobcats can probably only afford one more loss or risk missing the postseason altogether, which would be a blow to a program that came into the season with very high expectations.
This is the time of year “when you’ve got to have that toughness and that edge and grab a gear and start to move forward,” said Choate, who is 7-3 in November games in his tenure at MSU. “We have our deficiencies, without a doubt. But so does every single team. Every single team’s got an Achilles heel.
“Right now you’ve got Sac State and Weber that are the cream of the crop in this league, and then it’s a dogfight right now for everybody else that wants to get an opportunity to play postseason football. There’s three or four teams, maybe even as many as five in this league that are still in that mode.
“There’s a lot of football to be played.”
Saturday's game kicks off at noon and will be broadcast regionally on ROOT Sports.