FARGO, N.D. — First things first: The Montana State Bobcats’ 2019 football season should be considered a resounding success.
They took the next step in their progression under coach Jeff Choate, qualifying for the playoffs for the second consecutive season and advancing to the FCS semifinal round for the first time since 1984. The progress is undeniable, and MSU is in a better place after Choate’s first four years than they were before he arrived.
Saturday’s result — a 42-14 loss to the powerful Bison of North Dakota State — demonstrated just how far the Cats have come and just how far they have yet to go.
“We know where the bar is. We don’t have to look very hard to find it,” Choate said. “But as I told these guys, ‘I promise you we’re going to get there.’ That’s our goal, and we’re not going to deviate from it.”
North Dakota State isn’t just the bar in FCS football. The Bison continue to elevate the bar. They’ve won 36 consecutive games and seven of the past eight national championships, including the past two. They’ll likely be favored to win again when they play James Madison for the title on Jan. 11, 2020 in Frisco, Texas.
The NDSU dynasty has rolled on through complete graduating classes, top-level quarterbacks and coaching changes. It shows no signs of slowing with first-year coach Matt Entz getting the program back to Frisco with a freshman starting at quarterback. Trey Lance won the Jerry Rice award as the best freshman in the FCS and was the best player on the field Saturday, passing for three touchdowns and running for two more. NDSU sophomore receiver Christian Watson, who broke the game open with 75- and 70-yard touchdowns on consecutive Bison offensive plays, was the second-best player Saturday.
Those two will pose problems for the rest of the FCS for the next couple of years, but NDSU’s success has and will continue to hinge on its offensive and defensive lines. Put simply, the Bison linemen — on both sides of the ball — were bigger, faster and stronger than their counterparts at MSU. The Bobcats are great in the trenches in the Big Sky Conference and maybe against every team other than North Dakota State.
But that’s the bar.
“I just think this was a better team. We have to own that, we have to go back and do what we did last year — learn from this, try to add the right pieces to our roster and look at what we’re doing schematically that can push us forward,” said Choate, referencing the Bobcats’ 52-10 loss to NDSU in the 2018 playoffs.
“I don’t think it was anything scheme-wise,” MSU senior receiver Kevin Kassis said of Saturday’s beatdown. “It just came down to us players.”
Montana State has reshaped its roster since Choate took over prior to the 2016 season. The Bobcats have gotten bigger and more physical. They’re typically a dominant rush offense, and the defensive front seven has feasted on opponents lesser than NDSU.
The Bobcats have another heralded recruiting class entering the ranks this offseason, as Choate and his staff will surely adjust their goals. Upon his arrival in late 2015, Choate prioritized winning MSU’s final game of the regular season. The Bobcats have done that, winning the past four games with rival Montana.
Choate’s next mandate was to turn the Bobcats into a perennial playoff team. That mission, too, has been accomplished.
“The standard continues to raise, the standard for the offseason, the standard for our culture,” said senior defensive lineman Derek Marks. “Guys fight for it every day and we talk about the fights that we have every day, ignoring the outside noise and just fighting to get better. Everyone has bought into that, so I think it’s going to continue moving forward.”
Now, the task, which has proven nearly impossible over the past decade, is to climb to national championship contender.
“In my first season we lost six straight Big Sky Conference games,” Choate said. “To rise from the ashes to a place where, I think we deserve to be in consideration on the national stage, but we don’t deserve to be in the national championship game yet.”
Who knows if Montana State will get there. The Bobcats are getting closer — the season showed that.
But they still have a long ways to go to match the mighty Bison — and Saturday again showed that.