BOZEMAN -- Montana State head football coach Jeff Choate was in a good mood following the Bobcats' Gold Rush home-opening game.
And why wouldn't he be? His Bobcats, ranked 13th entering Saturday' game at Bobcat Stadium, just ran away with an impressive 38-17 win over 12th-ranked Southeast Missouri State that included 28 unanswered points in a pivotal third quarter.
"I just think that’s who we are. We’ve always been a second-half team since I’ve been here," said Choate, MSU's fourth-year coach. "We talk about not being front-runners, being finishers."
The Bobcats certainly finished on Saturday, blowing open a 10-10 game in the third quarter. The onslaught started immediately after halftime. Logan Jones returned the second-half kickoff 35 yards to give MSU solid field position. DeMareus Hosey picked up 12 yards on the offense's first play, and Troy Andersen broke free for a 44-yard run to get the Cats down to the SEMO 9-yard line. Hosey punched in his first career touchdown on the ensuing play. All told: three plays for 65 yards in just 1 minute, 2 seconds of game action.
The Bobcat defense followed suit, forcing the visiting Redhawks into a three-and-out on their next possession to set up MSU's second scoring drive of the quarter -- an 11-play, 65-yard drive capped by an Andersen touchdown run, his second of the day.
"That’s how teams play and rise together," Choate said. "I think a great example of team football was our first series where you get a chunk kickoff return, you hit three big plays, score a touchdown. Your defense goes out, gets a stop. We get the ball back on a short field and go and score. That’s what it’s all about, playing team football together."
Southeast Missouri State had no answers in that third quarter, again failing to pick up a first down on its next drive.
By now, Montana State offensive coordinator Matt Miller was in a groove calling plays, and the Bobcats needed just two plays for their next score -- a 55-yard shovel pass to Jones. Another SEMO three-and-out set up Karl Tucker II's 4-yard touchdown run to cap the Bobcats' dominant third quarter. The team stats in the third: MSU had 250 total yards compared to just 44 for SEMO.
"I think we were a little disappointed that we didn’t put up more points in the first half, because we knew — if we would’ve executed, I think this could’ve been a totally different game," said receiver Kevin Kassis, who finished with six catches for 85 yards. "I think it shows that we come out after halftime with our hair on fire. I think that was good to see, because that’s a good SEMO team. We’re just excited."
The offensive explosion in the third quarter nearly overshadowed a dominant defensive effort by the Bobcats. Of the 17 points they allowed, seven came on a short field after a botched MSU punt and three came on a 55-yard field goal to end the first half.
Keying the effort was Bryce Sterk, who introduced himself to the Big Sky Conference last season with 8.5 sacks. He's already further entrenched himself as one of the league's best pass rushers this season, recording three sacks on Saturday to bring his season total to four. On a night he shared the field with the 2018 Buck Buchanan Award winner, Zach Hall, Sterk was the most disruptive defensive player on the field.
"He’s improved, that’s the thing I see about Bryce," Choate said. "I think one of the things that happened with him -- he was at Washington for a while, but he really wasn’t in game preparation mode. A lot of times he was working on the scout team or a backup type of guy. Last year when he got here, he had to learn how to prepare like a starter, and he’s got that down now. He’s studying those offensive tackles and identifying what kind of moves he’s going to use going into the game, developing a pass-rush plan that’s going to be effective for him."
"I think I got a little bit more flexible in my lower half. My hands are a little bit better, I’m able to dip-and-rip tackles," Sterk added. "I know our front seven’s solid, it’s just going to be an outstanding front seven this season. So, knowing we can rely on each other and make plays when we need to make plays is huge."
As a team, Montana State recorded six sacks against SEMO and limited the Redhawks to just 245 total yards and 12 first downs. Quarterback Daniel Santacaterina never got comfortable, finishing 13-of-28 passing for 114 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Casey Bauman, meanwhile, made his second career start for MSU and completed 13 of 25 passes for 136 yards. Andersen had 102 rushing yards and two TDs on just six carries, and Isaiah Ifanse finished with 114 yards on 11 carries.
The Bobcats (1-1) go back on the road next week for another crucial FCS game, traveling to Western Illinois.