BOZEMAN — Bring on the Bison.
No. 23 Montana State dismantled No. 24 Incarnate Word 35-14 in the first round of the FCS football playoffs Saturday at Bobcat Stadium. It was the program’s first playoff win since 2012, a 16-10 win over Stony Brook.
“They believe. That’s what it’s all about,” said Montana State head coach Jeff Choate. “We’ve been working toward some of these breakthrough wins and getting into the playoffs, and getting our first win since 2012 in this tournament is a huge step for our program, our university, and we’re excited to be able to do it.”
In a game featuring contrasting offensive styles, it was Montana State’s defense and special teams that made impactful plays that made the difference. Nolan Askelson blocked a punt on UIW’s first possession and Lance McCutcheon returned it 11 yards for the first score of the game.
“Nolan has played in, now, three games for us and, really, we need him, so that’s why he’s rolling,” said Choate. “He’s one of our better freshmen and it was really a return call, but we forced hard from the outside on that and it opened up and he played hard. It was a kid making a play.”
The Cardinals showcased their high-powered offense on the ensuing drive, capitalizing on a six-play, 71-yard drive with a 5-yard pass from Sean Brophy to Jaeli Campbell to tie the game at 7-7.
Montana State’s defense took over from there.
The Bobcats were credited with a safety early in the second quarter, hurrying Brophy on third down in the end zone. His pass attempt was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, a safety, which was credited to MSU linebacker Grant Collins.
Tristan Bailey connected on the first of his two field goals, hitting from 35 yards to extend the lead to 12-7. MSU executed a two-minute drive at the end of the half, capped by Troy Andersen’s 1-yard touchdown run for an 18-7 advantage. Andersen’s rushing touchdown was his 20th of the season, tying Bobcat Hall of Famer Don Hass for the most in a single season in program history.
“That was the message at halftime, ‘Fellas, just keep pounding. Do what you do.’ Sooner or later those body blows turn into knockout shots, and I think that’s exactly what happened,” said Choate. “That was the message at halftime, ‘All right, they want us to throw the ball a little bit? We can do that, but bottom line is that our DNA is going after you. We’re going to stick to the plan.’ Fortunately our defense did a good enough job to allow us to stick to that plan.”
“He’s gotten better every single week,” receiver Travis Jonsen said of Andersen. “He’s trusting himself. All the receivers want to play for him, play for our team. That’s one of the things these past weeks, is everyone wants to play for each other. We’ve created a culture around here of something different and it’s contagious.”
Andersen completed 12 of 19 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown. He added 84 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Incarnate Word scored quickly to open the third quarter, closing to within 18-14, but Bailey hit from 19 yards to make it 21-14. Montana State’s defense allowed only three first downs the rest of the way.
Jonsen found the end zone on a 19-yard run from the Wildcat formation, breaking loose to the left side and using a key Andersen block to find the end zone.
“Troy made a great block. That touchdown was because of him, too,” said Jonsen, who finished with 112 total yards and two touchdowns.
The MSU defense flexed its muscles the rest of the way.
Brayden Konkol was the defensive star of the game, forcing a fumble two plays into the next UIW drive, which was recovered by Maleek Barkley near midfield. The turnover led to a 37-yard touchdown pass from Andersen to Jonsen in the right corner of the end zone, a play that was initially ruled out of bounds, but overturned after a replay.
“I threw it up and knew it was a little outside, but Travis made a great adjustment,” said Andersen. “I thought his one foot was in, so I went down there and celebrated with him. They went to review and it was good, so that was good.”
The 35-14 lead appeared to seal the game, but the Bobcats’ defense added another forced fumble and recovery two plays later, with Jahque Alleyne poking the ball from Kody Edwards’ hands, which Konkol returned 19 yards.
Montana State bled the clock down the stretch, with running back Isaiah Ifanse carrying the ball 29 times for 139 yards. He also broke MSU’s postseason single-game rushing mark, breaking the old record of 115 yards shared by Chad Newell (2014 vs. South Dakota State) and Tom Kostrba (1976 vs. New Hampshire).
“All you have to do is watch him. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Don’t fight for the extra yards, have some ball security here,’ but that’s not how he’s programmed, that’s not in his DNA whatsoever,” Choate said of Ifanse. “He’s doing this on a bum hamstring, he doesn’t really practice for us during the week and I just think he’s one of the great players we have.”
With the win, Montana State travels to Fargo, N.D. to meet the top-ranked and undefeated North Dakota State Bison in the second round of the FCS playoffs. NDSU is the defending FCS national champion and has won six of the past seven titles.
Saturday’s win was Montana State’s 10th NCAA playoff win in program history, hitting home for longtime Bobcat fans like Konkol, who grew up in nearby Belgrade.
“It was sweet. We haven’t gotten (a playoff win) in six years. The last playoff game I went to was when they played South Dakota State and there was no one in the stands, so I thought it was cool how packed the stadium was (Saturday), especially with Thanksgiving weekend and the snowstorm and all that. People still came, so it was sweet,” said Konkol, who totaled five tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Kickoff between Montana State (8-4) and North Dakota State (11-0) is schedule for 1 p.m. (MT) inside the Fargodome.