BOZEMAN – Whatever was said in the Montana State Bobcats’ locker room at halftime against Western Illinois, it worked.
Montana State trailed 13-6 at the break and had only 83 total yards of offense, only four of which came in the air. But the Bobcats came alive in the second half and defeated the Leathernecks 26-23 in their Gold Rush season opener Friday night.
PHOTOS: MONTANA STATE RALLIES PAST WESTERN ILLINOIS
After weeks of speculation, sophomore Troy Andersen was given the start at quarterback. It was the first time since his days as a Dillon Beaver under center and there were definitely some bumps in the road. On the first drive Andersen took three direct snaps, totaling seven yards.
Then Bobcat punter Jared Padmos flunked his first kick of the season, sending it 13 yards to the MSU 40-yard line. WIU would use seven plays tp score, capped off by a Steve McShane 3-yard touchdown.
Andersen ended the first half completing three of eight passing attempts for four yards. Western Illinois had exactly 100 more yards of offense at the half and outshined the Bobcats 10-2 in first downs.
The Bobcat defense, however, was a silver lining in the first half. The coaching staff continued to preach turnovers as what separates this unit from being average to becoming great. Defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak even ordered shirts for his players as incentives. For every interception or fumble, that player would get to pick out a piece of ‘swag,’ as the defensive coordinator called it.
It would be a tall task against a three-year starting quarterback in WIU’s Sean McGuire, who last year threw 25 touchdowns and only seven picks. But in the first half, Jahque Alleyne and Brayden Konkol both tallied interceptions.
In the third quarter, Montana State felt something click. In just more than two minutes from their own 19-yard line to open the second half, the Cats marched 81 yards in eight plays, ending in an Andersen 14-yard touchdown scamper to tie the game 13-13. The sophomore quarterback passed for 50 yards that drive, more than 12 times the total he threw for in the entire first half.
Western Illinois would score again two drives later, with McShane scoring a touchdown on a 4th-and-goal play. On the ensuing kickoff, though, MSU senior captain Kevin Kassis took matters into his own hands, fielding the ball at the 1-yard line and returning it 69 yards deep into Leatherneck territory. Three plays later, Andersen ripped off another long 24-yard touchdown run to keep it even at 20-20 with one quarter to go.
In his first start at quarterback, Andersen finished 12-of-21 for 81 yards and an interception. He also led the game in rushing with 145 yards and two touchdowns.
In the fourth quarter it was the Bobcat defense that rose to the occasion. In three Western Illinois drives, the Cats tallied three sacks, one from Konkol and two from Washington transfer Bryce Sterk, including a sack on 4th-and-4 with just more than a minute to play to seal the game for Montana State.
Sterk finished the game with eight total tackles, four tackles-for-loss and two sacks.
MSU kicker Tristan Bailey might have been the unsung hero. The Wyoming transfer had a bullseye debut, making all four of his field goals, including kicks from 47 and 50 yards out. He was also 2-for-2 on point-after attempts. His 35-yard field goal with 4:02 left in the game was the go-ahead score, lifting Montana State to the final 26-23 advantage.
It was the first home opener for the Bobcats since 2015. Now they head to the road to face another Missouri Valley opponent, South Dakota State. Kickoff for that game is Saturday Sept. 8 at 5 p.m.