BOZEMAN — So here sits Montana State, the toast of the town again after beating archrival Montana for the second consecutive season.
When quarterback Chris Murray took a knee to finish off a 31-23 win over the Grizzlies on Saturday, MSU’s faithful poured onto the Bobcat Stadium turf for a celebration that was 12 years in the making.
The last time the Bobcats beat Montana here was in 2005. But what's the bigger picture?
Montana State and its fans will enjoy that victory for an entire year, as is the case for whichever team prevails in the annual rivalry game. But you know coach Jeff Choate — who added to his reputation in these parts as a “Griz slayer” by improving to 2-0 against Montana — is already in the process of deconstructing what was the Bobcats’ third consecutive losing campaign.
In the run-up to the game, Choate talked about the need to beat UM in order to put a silver lining on a “cloud of a season.” That was the theme, far more than knocking the Grizzlies out of playoff contention (which happened officially Sunday with the release of the FCS tournament bracket).
The frustration of losing five fourth-quarter games and finishing below .500 — in this case 5-6, a one-game improvement from the year prior — isn’t lost on the Bobcats’ second-year coach. But they did find the bright side of their situation on Saturday.
“I think this group of young men is a very resilient group as I’ve said many times,” Choate said after the game. “I think we’re one of the top probably 30, 35 teams at our level, and if you look at it that’s probably what we are.
“That doesn’t do a lot for those seniors that we sent out today, but we sent them out on top. First time since 2005 that the Bobcats were able to be victorious in this great rivalry here in Bozeman. That definitely takes some sting off some of those tight losses.”
How long does it take for a program to be built in a coach’s image and likeness? That is a question they are wrestling with now at Montana after missing the postseason for the second straight season in the three-year tenure of coach Bob Stitt.
As another example, it took Weber State three years to make the playoffs and four years to win a Big Sky Conference title under Jay Hill, who has meticulously framed a sustainable, defense-first outfit.
The 2018 season will be Choate’s third with the Bobcats, and aspirations should be higher. A playoff berth may be outright expected, though a schedule that includes games against Western Illinois, South Dakota State, Eastern Washington, Idaho, Weber State and Montana will be difficult to navigate.
The Bobcats wave goodbye to high-impact seniors like linebacker Mac Bignell, safety Bryson McCabe, receiver Mitch Herbert, running back Nick LaSane and lineman Dylan Mahoney but bring back Murray, running back/linebacker Troy Andersen, receiver Kevin Kassis, defensive linemen Tucker Yates and Zach Wright, linebacker Josh Hill, cornerbacks Tyrel Thomas and Jalen Cole, and on and on.
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The cupboard is pretty full.
“We have a good football team, and I think that’s evidenced by how competitive we were game-in and game-out throughout the course of the season,” Choate said. “Every game we played went into the fourth quarter — except for games where we won by two scores or we lost to Washington State, who’s evidently a pretty good football team.
“We have a ton of guys coming back, we’ve got a lot of young talent, and we’ve got to go put some pieces (together) in a recruiting class, and we’ve got good momentum. I think the 2018 Bobcats are going to be a pretty good outfit.”
Murray’s improvement as a passing quarterback remains an ongoing process. Here’s a statistical comparison between his true freshman year and this season, which was his first as the full-time starter:
2016: 44.8 completion percentage, 778 yards, six touchdowns, eight interceptions, 110.6 efficiency rating.
2017: 51.5 completion percentage, 1,597 yards, 15 touchdowns, nine interceptions, 122.6 efficiency rating.
The two-year growth has been incremental. But as a runner, Murray continues to show that he is nearly impossible to contain.
In two seasons, Murray has 1,984 rushing yards. This year, he became the first Bobcat quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season.
For Murray, taking the next step in 2018 is less about statistical gains and more about what Montana State can accomplish as a team with him at the helm.
As he goes, so go the Bobcats.
“Even going into this year it was to go into the playoffs and win (the Griz) game, so I’m 50 percent on my goals for this year,” Murray said Saturday. “Obviously I’m still reaching that goal to make the playoffs. That’s the one I’m reaching (for) the most next year.”