BOZEMAN – Jeff Choate is 1-0 at Bobcat Stadium.
The first-year Montana State football coach guided the Bobcats to a 27-24 win over visiting Bryant University in the program’s annual “Gold Rush” home opener.
“Phenomenal fan support here that I’ve heard about for a long time, and it did not disappoint,” Choate said. “You could hear a pin drop when we were on offense, and those (Bryant) third downs and fourth downs were really impressive, so I’ve got to give a shout-out to Bobcat Nation for their support today.”
Choate credited the fans in the Sonny Holland Zone with forcing Bryant into a couple crucial third-quarter penalties that eventually led to a Bryson McCabe interception and return to the Bulldogs’ 1-yard line. McCabe’s pick was one of five turnovers the Bobcats forced Saturday, a stark contrast to a defense that last season intercepted only three passes.
The MSU defense, which held Idaho scoreless in the second half of last week’s season-opening loss, was again the story.
There were still issues. Bryant racked up 452 yards on 75 plays, including 368 through the air. Quarterback Dalton Easton completed 26-of-44 pass attempts, including a long of 64 yards. The Bulldogs converted three of four 4th-down conversions.
And yet, the defense deserved credit for Saturday’s win.
Bryant reached the Bobcats’ red zone three times, only to turn it over twice inside the 20-yard line on interceptions by John Walker.
“For me in the red zone, that play, it came down to experience,” said Walker, a graduate transfer from Colorado. “I’ve been in them same situations a lot when I was at Colorado, and there were times early in my career when I gave up them plays; I panicked. So I think experience – I knew it was coming. There’s only a couple of routes they can run in the red zone, and I knew that. I just used my experience and my knowledge and made the play.”
Walker’s biggest play came late in the fourth quarter. Trailing 27-24, Bryant was driving and had the ball at the Montana State 20-yard line after picking up a 4th-down conversion earlier in the drive.
Easton dropped back to pass and lofted a ball toward the right corner of the end zone. Walker won the jump ball and secured it on the bottom of the pile as the Bryant receiver tried to wrestle it away. The interception all but sealed MSU’s win.
“Going into the year, I had full trust in them,” said running back Gunnar Brekke, who saw his first action of the season after missing the first game with pneumonia. “You can call me crazy based on the year they had last year, but we really came together as a team, for one thing. And two: I saw those guys grow as leaders and as men, too. They challenge themselves all year, and I think that showed today – them being in those situations and coming out on top.”
Brekke finished with 71 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries for the Bobcats, who have yet to see their full complement of running backs on the field this season. Brekke missed the first week, and Chad Newell sat out Saturday’s game with an injury suffered in the loss at Idaho.
Nick LaSane added 19 yards and a touchdown on seven carries against Bryant, as MSU finished with 136 yards on 29 carries.
Quarterback Tyler Bruggman completed 12-of-25 passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns – one to John D’Agostino and one on a dart to Mitch Herbert – in his second start for the Bobcats. More importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over. The Bobcats are now plus-six in turnover differential on the season.
“I think the way we were able to force those turnover is just the way we practice,” Walker said. “We have to get three turnovers every day in practice or else we got to run, so we work hard at turning the ball over, whether it’s a forced fumble, an interception. We just try to get our hands on the ball as much as we can.”
“Everybody’s just doing their job, and the coaches, obviously, we give all the credit to them – coach Ty (Gregorak), coach (Gerald Alexander), coach (Kane) Ioane, coming up with a great game plan,” McCabe added. “It’s all to them. We just have to execute it. They’re smart guys, and they know what’s up. We got our hands on the ball today.”
Montana State (1-1) hosts Western Oregon Sept. 17.