BOZEMAN -- It was a long time coming.
Montana State defeated Austin Peay 24-10 Friday night to advance to the Bobcats' first semifinal football appearance since 1984. It was the sixth consecutive win for Montana State.
Isaiah Ifanse scored a 60-yard touchdown on the third play from scrimmage, and the Bobcats never looked back, limiting the Governor's big-play offense to only a single yard of scrimmage in the opening quarter.
"I cannot say enough about our community, our campus community, the Bozeman community and the state of Montana. That was a lot of fun. What an unbelievable crowd, what an unbelievable atmosphere," said Montana State head coach Jeff Choate. "I think this team fed off the energy all night. Defensively, what a lot of fun that was. I just want to tip my hat, I want to say thank you is what I want to do. ... Man, that was worthy of getting us to the semifinals for the first time in 35 years."
Three decades worth of postseason frustration were taken out on the Governors Friday evening, as Montana State's defense dominated from beginning to end, giving up only a 76-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. MSU didn't allow a first down in the first quarter and held Austin Peay to a 1-for-14 performance on third down throughout the contest.
"Playing on a big stage, I think it’s important to come out hot and set the tone early. From there it’s just trying to stay focused and keep doing it down after down," said defensive lineman Derek Marks, who finished with five tackles, two for loss, and a sack. "We knew they were explosive, and they’re a good offense. It was a matter of staying focused and trying to accomplish that in the quarters after. It was a huge, huge, huge start for us."
The Bobcats (11-3) pressured Austin Peay's sensational quarterback, JaVaughn Craig, in multiple ways, sacking him four times and intercepting him twice. Craig finished 18 for 37 for 173 yards and a touchdown but lost 17 yards on the ground between the sacks and run game.
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The Bobcats emphasized stopping the run on early downs, forcing third-and-long situations that the Governors couldn't convert.
"I thought our defensive plan was really very good, and a big part of it was that we simplified. We did not have a lot of calls going into this because we knew we were going to have to potentially contain that plus-one run threat," Choate said of Craig's run potential. "Once it became a drop-back game, we did feel like we had an advantage up front with our defensive line against their offensive line."
"I think (defensive coordinator Kane Ioane), it’s funny, we were talking on the sideline that he has us dialed every week," said Marks. "We just go out and execute and do what he tells us to do. He had another great plan this week, we executed, stopped the run on first and second down, and forced them into the drop-back game."
Ifanse's first-quarter touchdown run set the bar high, but the Cats cooled off the remainder of the first half, with Tristan Bailey's 45-yard field goal near the end of the first quarter capping their scoring in the first 30 minutes. Austin Peay added a field goal of its own to bring the score to 10-3 in favor of MSU at the break.
But Montana State wasted little time in the second half, with Brayden Konkol intercepting Craig on the first drive, and Tucker Rovig finding Kevin Kassis on a fade route in the right corner of the end zone moments later to push the lead to 17-3.
"We kind of knew when they get in that scrunch set that they’re going to run that hook because they hit it on us earlier in the game," Konkol said of the play. "You just kind of, once you see it, you see it again and you’re used to it. The ball got tipped and you just break on it."
"Our front seven, they’re so good it’s almost sometimes boring as a safety because you don’t really get a lot of tackles," Konkol continued, laughing. "It definitely helps us, really helps our defense."
Konkol and the defense set up another score later in the third, forcing the Governors into a three-and-out. MSU drove downfield and added its final touchdown, a trick play that saw Ifanse throw a jump pass to defensive lineman Jason Scrempos that brought the score to 24-3 with 4:08 to play in the quarter.
"That’s the same one we ran with Troy (Andersen) a few weeks back, but my whole argument for not doing it was I was concerned that Isaiah wasn’t going to be tall enough to get the ball over," laughed Choate. "He proved me wrong."
Ifanse finished with 26 carries for 196 yards and the score, while tossing the touchdown. Rovig was 13-for-20 passing for 114 yards and one score.
Craig did give the Governors life early in the fourth quarter, throwing a beautiful on-the-run pass to DeAngel Wilson that went 76 yards for a touchdown. But Tyrel Thomas intercepted Craig on the Govs' next drive, then Daniel Hardy added a sack on fourth-and-19 the next possession.
But the final blow came from Marks, the same player who recovered last year's fumble in the infamous Cat-Griz game, and who opened this year's MSU-UM contest with a fumble recovery.
Facing another fourth down, Craig was sacked by Marks, who stripped the ball, and Bryce Sterk returned it 30 yards inside the red zone, where MSU kneeled out the clock.
"It was just fun, seeing Bryce scoop it up and run. He looked really athletic there, stiff-arming guys and making cuts," said Marks. "It was pretty awesome. Celebrating with the team, it was just a blast. It was fun."
"I think the urgency is back again and we’re excited about next week, whoever the opponent is," Marks continued. "We’ll get a day off (Saturday) to recover a little bit, rest after the short week, and get back to work. No school, just football. It’s going to be awesome. It’s like being professional athletes for a week or two, and we’re excited about that. The urgency is definitely going to be present."
Montana State awaits the winner between top-ranked North Dakota State (13-0) and Illinois State (10-4), who play Saturday in Fargo.