BOZEMAN — Jeff Choate didn’t make excuses two days removed from a 16-12 loss at North Dakota, a game in which Montana State’s offense couldn’t capitalize on opportunities and its special teams failed to execute in crunch time.
Shouldering the burden of back-to-back losses heading into November — they also lost 34-21 to Sacramento State at home on Oct. 12 — the Bobcats now find themselves searching for answers as teams jockey for position in the Big Sky Conference standings in hopes of making the postseason.
Choate, speaking Monday during his weekly news conference at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, shouldered the blame for the setback at UND.
“At the end of the day, here’s the deal: I’m the head football coach,” Choate said. “When things don’t go well, that’s on me as the head football coach. Everybody’s going to share some level of responsibility, but I bear the ultimate responsibility and I accept that responsibility, and I’m fine with that.”
MSU (5-3, 2-2 Big Sky) dropped five spots to No. 14 in this week’s STATS FCS Top 25 poll. The Bobcats will host Southern Utah (2-7, 1-4) this week to try to get back on track.
Montana State’s offense had its share of difficulty against North Dakota — from not scoring a touchdown in the red zone early in the game, to failing to execute a would-be TD pass from Tucker Rovig to Travis Jonsen, to being called for two costly delay of game penalties at crucial times.
After they failed to convert a rather bizarre attempt at a two-point conversion, the matter was eventually decided in the fourth quarter: UND punter Cade Peterson pinned the Bobcats inside their 1-yard line with a 57-yard punt, which led to MSU’s Jared Padmos having his own punt blocked and the Fighting Hawks recovering the ball in the end zone for what turned out to be the winning score.
The Bobcats’ offense achieved 316 total yards, just 97 through the air, and a below-par 16 first downs. It converted eight of its 18 third-down plays. Its only touchdown was scored on a 1-yard run by Troy Andersen early in the fourth quarter.
MSU faced similar struggles in the loss to Sacramento State, but they seemed to grow exponentially as the North Dakota game went on.
The Bobcats, as Choate said, didn’t make the plays that were available to be made.
“The second half, I just think there were so many things we could have done better, starting with me as the head coach, in terms of getting us into better play selection, utilizing timeouts to get us out of bad play selection,” said Choate, who described the loss at “gut-wrenching.”
“As the game got tighter you could almost sense that it was like, ‘Let’s not screw this up. We’re in a close game, let’s not make mistakes.’ You’ve got to play to win. You can’t call games or play games not to lose. And that’s been my message to our staff and to our players moving forward.”
The offense continues to fight through a rash of injuries, notably to running backs Isaiah Ifanse and Logan Jones. Andersen (who remains hobbled) and true freshman DeMareus Hosey carried much of the burden against UND.
But MSU, as Choate said, is not unlike any other team dealing with health issues.
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Hosey led all rushers with 76 yards against UND, but the ground game didn’t seem to have the same punch.
After the Sacramento State loss, Choate talked about MSU becoming too predictable on both sides of the ball. The offense opened up the playbook a bit more against North Dakota but struggled to execute on some key plays, as evidenced by drives of 11 and 13 plays that produced field goals instead of touchdowns.
It underscored Choate's point of MSU coaching and playing things too safe.
“If we show (the players) that we believe in them and have confidence in them, and if plays are available, let's call that play. Let's not get pushed into a box,” Choate said. “That's what happened. As the game got tighter we started to call the game not to lose it.”
Choate said the team suffered some errors in communications last week. As a remedy, Choate indicated that offensive line coach Brian Armstrong may be paired closer in proximity to offensive coordinator Matt Miller going forward.
That duo works together during the course of a game, and communication is paramount.
Miller has called plays from the booth this season while Armstrong has been stationed along the sideline.
After the UND game, Rovig put a lot of the blame on himself. Rovig completed 13 of 26 passes for 77 yards. He did not throw a touchdown pass, but also didn’t throw an interception.
“Tucker cares about those guys in that locker room,” Choate said. “He knows that the offense is going through him, and he internalizes a lot of that. But I think it’s unfair to say that it was all on him. Clearly there were a lot of things that took place during the course of that game that everybody bears responsibility in.”
The Bobcats faced a similar situation last season when it lost two straight games in October, which at the time looked as though it would knock them out of the playoff conversation. They rallied down the stretch, though, winning three in a row to end the regular season and make the postseason.
Choate said the team remains committed to incremental improvement, which is how he believes the Bobcats will right the ship.
“I have a lot of confidence — a lot of confidence — in our group,” Choate said. “We have some tremendous senior leaders, I like our captains, I like the toughness of this group (and) I like how we’re playing defense right now.
“I think we’ve got to create some momentum for ourselves in the kicking game and be better there, and clearly we’ve got to be more explosive on offense. But I have total confidence in this group to be able to go achieve the goals that we still have in front of us.”