BOZEMAN — Each week presents a new challenge in the Big Sky Conference, and Montana State is about to find that out in a pretty drastic way.
Last Saturday it was all about containing the downfield passing game of Northern Arizona and star quarterback Case Cookus. Mission accomplished.
Now MSU must deal with the tricky triple option attack of Cal Poly.
The Bobcats, ranked No. 6 in this week’s STATS Top 25 FCS poll, will square off against the Mustangs on Saturday at 6 p.m. Mountain time in San Luis Obispo, California, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more radical change in styles from one game to the next.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Case Cookus and you’ve got to defend these vertical routes. That’s just as dangerous as what they’re going to do to you in the run game,” Choate said of Cal Poly on Monday during his weekly news conference. “So we’ve just got to have the right mindset and go down there, play our style physically.”
The Mustangs (2-2, 1-0 Big Sky) are coming off a 24-21 win in their Big Sky opener at Southern Utah, a game in which they rushed for 278 yards. Freshman quarterback Jalen Hamler scored a pair of touchdowns on the ground.
Cal Poly doesn’t have standout fullback Joe Protheroe anymore — “Good news,” Choate said — but his replacement, sophomore Duy Tran-Sampson, leads the league with an average of 99.5 rushing yards per game.
Hamler, meanwhile, has five rushing touchdowns, which is tied for the league lead.
The Mustangs, coached by Tim Walsh, have employed the triple option for years. The Bobcats (4-1, 1-0) know what they’re up against.
“It’s different. That’s the one thing that I can say. It’s very unconventional,” Choate said. “You (don’t) see it on a regular basis. When you see something like that just every once in a while, you don’t practice spring ball, fall camp to defeat that. The difference makes you have to simplify, and the hard part about that is those guys have answers to everything. They’ve been doing this forever.”
“It’s not going to be a mystery, we’ve just got to stay disciplined and stop it,” Choate added. “And it doesn’t really matter how well you defend it. At some point in time they’re going to create plays. That’s just what they do. You’ve just got to limit those, and that’s going to be a critical part of our success.”
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The good news for the Bobcats is that their running game has been the most effective in the Big Sky Conference so far — and that includes Cal Poly. With an average of 275.0 rushing yards per game, MSU ranks No. 1 in the league and No. 6 in the FCS.
And they’ve done it mostly without tailback Isaiah Ifanse, who has missed the past three games due to injury. Linebacker Troy Andersen has also been hobbled, which has at times kept him from having his typical impact on offense.
Against NAU, receiver and “wildcat” quarterback Travis Jonsen rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns as the Bobcats piled up 340 ground yards in a come-from-behind win. It was Jonsen’s first career 100-yard game.
The week prior against Norfolk State, three MSU rushers — Logan Jones, Shane Perry and Lane Sumner — all eclipsed the 100-yard plateau. Through five games, six different Bobcats have hit the century mark.
“When Isaiah goes down, Logan’s ready to go. When Logan goes down, Shane and Lane are ready to go. And (freshman) DeMareus Hosey is right there ready to go,” Choate said. “We’re hoping we don’t have to use him, we’d love to redshirt that kid, but if we need him he’s going to be ready to go.”
The Bobcats have gained 789 yards and scored 10 touchdowns on the ground in the past two weeks alone. The offense scored 105 points combined in those games.
Cal Poly will be playing at its home field of Alex G. Spanos Stadium for the first time since its season opener victory against San Diego on Aug. 31.
The Bobcats hope to get off to a better start, which is something that has eluded them in recent games.
“That’s something that we talked about at length on Sunday as a staff and with the players. Why are we so sluggish in the first half?” Choate said. “I don’t give a lot of fire-and-brimstone speeches before a game because I think that usually lasts about past the opening kickoff, but we’ve got to do a better job of starting faster.
“It’s not like this is a one-time thing. Let’s go back to last year. This is a pattern for us now. And the better teams that we play, we can’t spot people 21 points. That’s not going to be effective for us in terms of our long-term success.
“I think our guys gain a lot of confidence from knowing that we’re never out of a game because of the way that we play and how hard we’re going to play in the second half, but certainly on the road you don’t want to fall asleep. You’ve got to come out with your motor running.”