SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Neither Travis Jonsen nor Montana State thought twice about who should get the ball in overtime.
Leading by three touchdowns late in the third quarter, the No. 6-ranked Bobcats were in control of their Big Sky Conference tussle with Cal Poly on Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. But momentum changed in a hurry as the Mustangs rallied to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
Still, the adage rings true: Your best players make the biggest plays in the most important moments, and it was Jonsen’s 9-yard touchdown run in OT that lifted MSU to a 34-28 victory to extend its winning streak to five games.
It was the Bobcats' first overtime game since 2010, and served as their first win on the road at Cal Poly since 1995.
“Like I told the boys in there, it doesn’t matter how, it just matters how many,” MSU coach Jeff Choate said outside of a jubilant locker room. “It’s tough to win on the road in this league, and clearly when you’ve got to play extra football, I think it shows again the character of your team.”
After losing its lead, Montana State (5-1, 2-0 Big Sky) won the all-important overtime coin toss and chose to play defense first. The Mustangs (2-3, 1-1) started on the 25-yard line, but three runs that went nowhere and a false-start penalty pushed them back and they had to settle for a 48-yard field goal attempt by Colton Theaker that sailed wide.
The Bobcats then got their chance from the 25 and wasted little time going to Jonsen. Working out of his familiar wildcat quarterback position, Jonsen ran up the middle for 7 yards, then again burst ahead for 9 yards.
There was little doubt who would be called on next.
Jonsen then took his third straight snap, juked at the line, slipped an arm tackle and ran into the end zone to end the game. Montana State’s bench emptied and Jonsen was mobbed, though he declined to take any credit in the aftermath.
“Last moment, we just needed everybody to step up. The O-line stepped up huge,” Jonsen said. “The whole drive as the O-line, they left me big holes. On that touchdown they left me a hole really big and I just took it. Huge credit to them. It was all them.”
“He’s the type of guy on the sidelines, he wants the ball in his hands,” Choate said of Jonsen. “After they missed the field goal it’s pretty much just, ‘Let’s just go put this thing away,’ and he was the right guy to put the ball in his hands, for sure.”
Montana State’s defense faced 73 total running plays from Cal Poly’s triple option offense but made a big stand when it mattered in the extra period.
The Bobcats stopped fullback Duy Tran-Sampson for no gain on the first play, then offensive lineman D.J. Stuckey was flagged for a false start. After that, quarterback Jalen Hamler rushed twice for minus-1 yard and the Mustangs had to bring out Theaker.
MSU interior linemen Derek Marks tackled Hamler for a three-yard loss behind the line of scrimmage on second down, which proved crucial.
“We had some different play calls that I don’t think they had seen,” Marks said. “(We were) expecting pass and they actually ran the ball, but it was some different movement we had up front and we penetrated up field and made the play.”
“We don’t really ever change. It is what it is,” Choate said. “Can’t get too high or too low, you’ve got to go play the next play. I thought our guys on defense, our leaders, guys like Derek Marks, Chase Benson, Bryce Sterk, those guys rose to the occasion.
Jonsen finished with 85 rushing yards on 11 carries and scored two touchdowns. The Bobcats — in a matchup of the top two run-producing teams in the league — ran for 213 yards, doing their best to counter Cal Poly, which produced 251 yards.
Logan Jones and quarterback Tucker Rovig also had rushing touchdowns for MSU. Rovig threw a first-quarter TD to wideout Kevin Kassis. But the Mustangs erased a what was eventually a 28-7 deficit.
“It was getting a little stressful,” Kassis said. “It just shows the maturity and how the culture has changed here. We didn’t fold, and the defense did a great job in that first overtime segment.”
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Montana State got the ball to start the game, but punted when its opening series stalled. Jered Padmos pinned the Mustangs back on their 6-yard line. Cal Poly, utilizing its triple option offense, marched 94 yards on 20 plays, capped by a 26-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jalen Hamler to receiver J.J. Koski.
Koski made a diving catch against the coverage of cornerback Tyrel Thomas to give the Mustangs a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. The drive ate up 11 minutes, 40 seconds.
The Bobcats answered on their next possession, as Rovig found receiver Kassis in the back corner of the end zone on a fourth-and-5 play from the 10-yard line. Kassis stretched to make a difficult catch while staying in bounds at the pylon to tie the game.
“I felt I had leverage on the safety,” Kassis said. “Tucker put it up there, and I just wanted to go up and make a play.”
MSU’s defense was able to get off the field on Cal Poly’s next possession, and the Bobcats went 87 yards on 13 plays, capped by a 1-yard plunge by Rovig and a 14-7 lead. Along the way, they were aided by a pass interference call on Cal Poly on a deep ball to Jonsen, and a 25-yard catch and run by Kassis to put the ball inside the 10.
Penalties hurt Cal Poly in the first half, as they were called for a chop block and a late hit out of bounds in addition to pass interference against Jonsen.
At the outset of the second half, Cal Poly drove deep into Bobcat territory thanks to a 31-yard run down the sideline by Drew Hernandez. But an errant pitch by Hamler on third down forced Cal Poly to attempt a 32-yard field goal, and Theaker missed wide right.
Later in the third quarter, Jahque Alleyne returned a punt 38 yards to set MSU’s offense up on the Cal Poly 40. Alleyne sat out the first half while serving a suspension after being called for targeting late in last week’s game against Northern Arizona.
Runs of 17 and 16 yards by Isaiah Ifanse — who was playing in his first game since being injured in Week 2 against Southeast Missouri — led to a 4-yard touchdown run by Jones on a draw play that gave the Bobcats a 21-7 lead.
After stopping Cal Poly again, Jonsen hit consecutive big plays. First, he took a quick pass from Rovig and raced 51 yards down the sideline, then ran 13 yards to the end zone to put the Bobcats ahead by three scores with 2:19 left in the third.
The Mustangs were able to break MSU’s run of four consecutive touchdowns on their next possession, as Hamler hit Quentin Harrison with a 31-yard touchdown pass to make the score 28-14 early in the fourth quarter.
The Bobcats went three and out on their next series, and Padmos shanked a punt that went just six yards and set Cal Poly up at MSU’s 38. That eventually led to a 1-yard plunge by Hamler, which cut further into MSU’s advantage.
Rovig was then intercepted by Carter Nichols, who returned the ball from midfield inside the 20-yard line. Five plays later Drew Hernandez scored his first career touchdown to tie the game 28-28 with 7:05 remaining.
“We put our defense in some awful situations in the second half there, the fourth quarter in particular, with the shanked punt and the interception and unfortunately (we) weren’t able to hold serve on that,” Choate said.
“Giving them a short field I think gave them momentum. Those kinds of self-inflicted wounds ... you can’t do it.”
MSU had the ball with a chance to win in in regulation, but ultimately kicker Tristan Bailey missed short on a 50-yard field goal attempt with 52 seconds left, giving the ball back to Cal Poly.
Alleyne intercepted Hamler with eight seconds left on the Mustangs' following drive, which ultimately set up overtime after a Hail Mary pass by Rovig fell incomplete in the end zone as time expired.
The Bobcats return home next week to play Sacramento State, which knocked off No. 22 Eastern Washington 48-27 on Saturday.