BOZEMAN — Montana State trailed by three touchdowns in the first half of its Big Sky Conference opener against Northern Arizona. So naturally the Bobcats threw their offensive playbook out the window and started heaving the ball all over Bobcat Stadium in an effort to come back.
Is that how it went down?
Not so fast.
The No. 7-ranked Bobcats never wavered from their mission to run the football against the Lumberjacks’ defense, and it paid off in a big way — eventually — as they roared back to capture a 49-31 victory on a cold and blustery Saturday.
It was a win that seemed unlikely at halftime. But remember this about the Bobcats: These games are as much of a mental grind as they are physical, and coach Jeff Choate preaches focus for 60 minutes. It was crucial element in this rally.
“We’re a second-half team,” said safety Brayden Konkol, who hit NAU quarterback Case Cookus in the fourth quarter to force an interception by edge defender Amandre Williams, which all but sealed the outcome. “That’s kind of our strong suit.”
Montana State found itself unable to move the ball with much success in the first half, but rode “wildcat” QB Travis Jonsen and a stable of backs to 244 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground in the final 30 minutes.
Jonsen, following an offensive line that got stronger as the afternoon got colder, had 105 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Shane Perry scored twice in the fourth quarter as the Bobcats reeled off 35 unanswered points.
There were no big adjustments made at halftime. Instead, the Bobcats simply regrouped.
“Kudos to the coaches. I think the biggest thing for us was just the mentality,” offensive lineman Lewis Kidd said. “It’s pretty easy for teams to go in at halftime (after) the half that we had and say, ‘Dang. This isn’t working. What do we do? What do we change?’”
Kidd said offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Brian Armstrong “came in and he’s like, ‘We’re not going to change anything. We’re going to keep running our DNA stuff.’ Those little chunk plays, those little one-, two-yard plays turned into five, six, seven big runs. So just trusting that and continuing to pound the rock like we do and trust ourselves, I think that was kind of the biggest thing.”
It was a wild turn of events that seemed to find its roots on a 23-yard punt return by Jahque Alleyne in the second quarter that produced Jonsen’s first touchdown. But the game remained in doubt until the fourth quarter.
Then, a two-yard touchdown run up the middle by Troy Andersen pulled the Bobcats within 31-28 with 11:42 to go, and Travis Jonsen added a 3-yard run later in the fourth quarter to give MSU its first lead.
A fumble by NAU’s Nate Stinson on the ensuing kickoff led to a 15-yard touchdown run by Shane Perry and a 42-31 advantage. The Bobcats sealed the game when Williams intercepted Cookus with 6:59 remaining, and Perry scored again from five yards out.
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Conversely, Montana State’s defense held NAU to three second-half points while flustering Cookus. Choate credited defensive coordinator Kane Ioane with that effort.
“I think Kane did a really nice job of saving some things for the second half,” Choate said. “We gave them a couple different front and pressure looks that we hadn’t shown them in the first half, and (Cookus) wasn’t quite as comfortable knowing where to go with the ball.”
“We made too many mistakes,” first-year NAU coach Chris Ball said. “Can’t make that many mistakes against a good football team.”
The Lumberjacks’ defensive front appeared to wear down against MSU’s downhill ground game. The Bobcats finished with 340 net rushing yards, and called just one passing play in the fourth quarter.
It was Jonsen’s first career 100-yard rushing day. Logan Jones had 74 yards on the ground, while Perry finished with 67 and Lane Sumner and Troy Andersen each added 45.
Jonsen is the sixth different Bobcat to rush for at least 100 yards in a game this season.
“We just started creasing them,” Jonsen said. “Our O-line, they never give up. I don’t care how many negative plays the defense creates they will always find a way to push through, and by the second half they’re ready to put them on their butt.”
“At the end of the day, if it’s working, it’s working,” Kidd said. “The O-line I know prides themselves on making holes and getting lanes open. The more we do that the easier it’s going to be for us.”
Quartberback Tucker Rovig threw for 106 yards, including a 49-yard catch-and-run touchdown to Coy Steel, who was injured on the play and didn’t return. Rovig was intercepted in the first quarter by NAU linebacker Taylor Powell. Powell returned it 29 yards for the game's first score.
Cookus threw for 273 yards while running back Joe Logan had his best day of the season with 83 yards and a touchdown.
The Bobcats improved to 4-1 overall and to 1-0 in the Big Sky. It’s MSU’s best start to a season since going 6-0 to open the 2012 campaign. NAU dipped to 2-3 and 0-1 in the league.
Montana State travels to face Cal Poly and its triple-option offense next week.
"This league is going to be super competitive. Any given Saturday," Choate said. "No matter who we're playing or where we're playing them, (we're) going to have to go out and compete hard. We're going to have another test next week against a really challenging style of offense in Cal Poly."
NOTES: MSU’s Andersen now has 29 career rushing TDs, which ties him for No. 2 in school history. … Members of the Bobcats’ 1984 national championship team — TE Joe Bignell, DB Joe Roberts and coach Dave Arnold — served as honorary captains. ... Neither team's defense recorded a quarterback sack.