Cat-Griz: When Montana State has the ball

Southeast Missouri State at Montana State
Posted at 6:48 AM, Nov 22, 2019

It's no secret what Montana State wants to do on offense.

Since Jeff Choate took over the Bobcats' football program, the team wants to run first, run second and run third. Though MSU hasn't started a run-first quarterback this year like years past, the 2019 season has been no different. The Bobcats gain nearly 260 yards per game on the ground, which leads the Big Sky Conference.

On the flip side, they rank second-to-last in the league in passing offense, gaining only 171 yards per game.

All that's to say, Saturday's Cat-Griz game will likely be determined by how well eighth-ranked Montana State (8-3 overall, 5-2 Big Sky Conference) can run the ball and how well No. 3 Montana (9-2, 6-1) can stop the run. Sure, MSU quarterback Tucker Rovig will be asked to make a few plays in the passing game -- and there should be opportunities against a Griz pass defense that ranks last in the Big Sky -- but the Bobcats go as their run game goes.

And Montana is well-equipped to stop the run. The Grizzlies have the Big Sky's No. 2-ranked run defense, giving up just 112.6 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry. Opponents have scored only eight rushing touchdowns against Montana all season, and the Griz are coming off arguably their most impressive performance of the season. They held then-No. 3 Weber State to just 69 rushing yards on 36 carries last week on their way to a 35-16 win.

The Griz have gotten noticeably bigger on the defensive line this season, and they have an impressive corps of linebackers led by Buck Buchanan Award candidate Dante Olson, who leads the conference in tackles with 133 (12.1 per game). Fellow linebacker Jace Lewis is fifth in the league with 104 tackles, and safety Robby Hauck is third with 108 tackles. That trio figures to be busy on Saturday trying to slow MSU's multi-dimensional rush offense, which will see a number of players take the snap from the center and/or carry the ball. Isaiah Ifanse returned from injury last week and had 77 yards on 10 carries in the Cats' 27-17 win at UC Davis.

MSU's offense is at its best when Ifanse can run between the tackles and guys like Travis Jonsen and Logan Jones can attack the edges. Of course, there's always the Troy Andersen wild card. He's become a bigger and bigger piece for the Bobcat defense as the season has progressed, but he'll still figure into the offensive game plan.

So, who has the edge when Montana State has the ball?

The Cats want to run, so they're not going to give up on it easily. Even if the UM defense proves up to the challenge early, MSU has shown it can lean on opponents in the second halves of games. The Griz defensive line is going to have to be up to the task, penetrating into the backfield and/or occupying blockers all game long to allow Olson and Lewis to flow to the Cats' ball-carriers.

If the Griz win on early downs, forcing MSU into third-and-long situations, it could be a long day for the Bobcats. But if Montana State gets rolling, gaining chunk yardage in its creative run game, downfield opportunities will present themselves for Rovig, who will look to attack vertically while avoiding any big mistakes.

Kickoff for the 119th Cat-Griz football game is scheduled for noon Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.