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Tale of two halves: Early deficit ultimately costs No. 2 Montana State at No. 9 Idaho

Jacob Trimble
Posted at 4:04 PM, Oct 29, 2023

BOZEMAN — No. 9-ranked Idaho handed No. 2-ranked Montana State its first loss in the Big Sky Conference this season on Saturday, 24-21.

It was a tale of two halves, as the Bobcats' offense was shutout in the first before finding its footing in the second. After scoring 21 second-half points, the Bobcats looked to tie the game with a 43-yard field goal with time winding down in the fourth quarter, but Brendan Hall missed the kick to seal MSU's first conference loss of the season.

Montana State’s offense went three-and-out every drive in the first half until its final possession, which left the MSU defense on the field for a majority of the half.

Idaho added more wear on the MSU defense by converting three of four fourth-down attempts in the game.

"I think our defense really wore down in part because our offense couldn’t stay on the field the first half, and even though we got some things going offensively in that second half, ultimately that damage was maybe done on our defense," Bobcats coach Brent Vigen said. "You know, you win and you lose as a team."

"We were on the field a lot, which is fine. We got a pretty good rotation on the inside and the D-Line, so we get some good breaks," Bobcats defensive end Brody Grebe said. "You play a lot of plays, you get a little gassed."

In a difficult position, the Bobcat defense held Idaho to 336 total yards — 100 less than the Vandals average overall.

The MSU offense quickly put the team back in the game in the second half with back-to-back touchdowns from Jared White and Clevan Thomas Jr. to start the third quarter. The 10-0 halftime deficit was suddenly a 14-10 lead going into the fourth quarter.

"Obviously, we didn’t start the way we needed to," Bobcats quarterback Tommy Mellott said. "But yeah, we just started getting rolling on our game plan. That’s kind of what happened in the third quarter."

The Bobcats looked like themselves again in the second half by dominating the run game, but the Vandals regained the lead during a climatic back-and-forth fourth quarter in which they scored two touchdowns.

Montana State had a chance to send the game into overtime, but Hall missed the game-tying 43-yard field goal.

"We got to go back to the drawing board. I think that makes us six for 12 field goals on the year," Vigen said. "That’s not going to get it done. So, whatever the drawing board means, we got to go back to it and find a way we can convert field goals."

Mellott, a team leader for MSU, consoled Hall after the missed field goal and put to words how a loss can't be blamed on one play.

"That’s just one play out of the entire game. It's obviously not all on him, but it’s easy for him to feel that," Mellott said. "I think it’s important for us to — obviously everyone has his back, everyone believes in what he’s doing. He works his butt off for us, and he’s been great in the kickoff game, so I think it’s important to have the guy’s back."

The Bobcats had done a great job closing the door on conference opponents so far this season, but Idaho found a way to stay alive down to the wire.

"We couldn’t finish," Vigen said. "We take a lead like that in the fourth quarter, you know, I think our expectations are we can finish that, and we just didn’t do it."

This loss opens up the landscape in one of the strongest conferences in the FCS with Montana State, Idaho and Montana now all tied at 4-1 atop the Big Sky standings. Winning the league title and getting home-field advantage in the playoffs are still possible for the Bobcats, but it’ll depend on external factors with three weeks left of the regular season.

Montana State will look to get back in the win column on Nov. 4 when it hosts Northern Arizona inside Bobcat Stadium.