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Opponent Q&A: Montana State Bobcats

We got in touch with R&R Cat Cast to get out the pre-game jitters ahead of Saturday.

Montana State Athletics Department

We’re not but ONE DAY away from Texas Tech football. Book-ending the offseason means we start getting together with pundits from opposing teams and ask them the hard hitting questions about the match up. Week one is Montana State and we phoned in our friends from R&R Cat Cast to help us get a better picture of who the Bobcats are going into this game:

  1. The talent gap between the FBS and FBC leagues is not as prominent as many would like to believe; Montana State (17th in the FCS) is certainly no pushover. Where does the fanbase stand on the Bobcats going into this year? What are their hopes, fears, reactions to playing Texas Tech for the season opener?

The starting talent on most Top-25 FCS teams is pretty solid for the most part. I would venture to say that most of them have probably a handful of guys that could, no question, be starting on a non-P5 team. Even as much as being the first backup on a P5 team; starting here and there. The FCS is more of a developmental division. You get a guy like Dallas Goedert (South Dakota State), who was a scrawny kid coming out of a small town in South Dakota but ends up being an All-American and gets drafted in the second round by the Eagles. On the other hand you also get guys like Joe Flacco, who transferred down to Delaware from Pitt, and ends up being a first round draft pick.

In Montana there are guys who undoubtedly would be recruited to Mountain West teams or even some Pac 12 teams, but go under-recruited due to their origins being small-town Montana. Most end up staying in-state and playing for either Montana State or the University of Montana. Montana is actually similar to Texas in how important football is to the people that live here – football is king. When MSU and UM have home games with sellout crowds on the same day, nearly 4.4% of the population of Montana is in those two stadiums.

Going into the fourth year with Jeff Choate, and coming off our first FCS playoff appearance since 2014 and win since 2012, expectations are pretty high this year. Anything less than a FCS playoff win I think would be disappointing and with the way our schedule shakes up this year I think a first round bye should be the goal. The cultural change has been significant and obvious under Choate, and the style of football is the perfect fit for a team located in Montana – hard-nosed, team first, physical and mentally tough.

2. Texas Tech has been infamous over the past couple of years for having a less-than-average defense. One of their weakest points has been their rush defense. How will Montana State look to exploit this? Who are some names offensively for the Bobcats that Tech fans should become familiar with before Saturday.

Montana State has been top 3 in conference every year in rushing since Jeff Choate took over in 2016. Montana State was the only team not named Cal Poly, a triple option team, to lead the league ( 2017) since Cal Poly joined the conference in 2012. This is partly due to having a pair of quarterbacks who are as dynamic as they come (Chis Murray 2016-2017, Troy Andersen 2018) with the ball in their hands, but extremely limited in what they can do in the passing game. The staff has done an excellent job of being creative in the running game and Jeff Choate is a believer in the +1 attack that a mobile QB brings, meaning that normally when a QB hands the ball off he is essentially taken out of the play so that defense only has to focus on the other 10 guys. Choate likes making the defense guard a mobile QB, but that will look a lot different this year when Casey Bauman (6’6, 235lbs) is under center who is more of a pro-style QB, but who can move very well for a big guy.

I expect MSU to come out and use the power running game right away and test the Texas Tech defense. We are breaking in a redshirt freshman QB from a very small high school in northern WA so I don’t believe the staff will ask much of him when it comes to throwing the ball. You will see a healthy dose of preseason All-American Isaiah Ifanse (5’10 202lbs), the former Washington state Gatorade Player of the Year from perennial power Bellevue, who broke the MSU freshman rushing record last year with 1,057 yards and 7 TDs. The Cats will also likely employ a number of wildcat or direct snap formations involving last year’s starting QB and FCS touchdown leader (with 21 TDs) Troy Andersen who is now our starting Sam LB (6’4 233lbs), and Travis Jonsen (6’4 210lbs) a former 4 star dual-threat QB who signed with Oregon out of high school. Our offensive line is a veteran yet still young group lead by All-American senior Mitch Brott (6’6 300lbs). At wide receiver is senior captain Kevin Kassis (6’ 202lbs) who hasn’t been able to really show what he is capable in his time at MSU since we’ve had such a hard time finding a QB who can spin it.

3. On the other side of the ball, Texas Tech is just as infamous for dominating opposing defenses through the implementation of Air-Raid like schemes. Does Montana State have the grit to outwork a team so hell-bent on scoring the ball? Who are some names defensively for the Bobcats that Tech fans should become familiar with before Saturday?

Defensively the Bobcats are much more physical and mentally tougher than they were under the previous coach, Rob Ash. The stats don’t necessarily back that up because the Big Sky is a league known for scoring, but the improvement is there. Last year’s defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak was (for lack of a better phrase) “let go” after last year, and returning to the fold is Bobcat legend Kane Ioane. Ioane spent the last 2 years on the University of Washington staff after spending the previous 14 or so on the MSU staff. He coached a 4 year All-American career at MSU as a safety, which helped him get the bump up to the Huskies. Choate is emulating UW defensively, we have multiple UW transfers, and Choate is a UW guy himself & Chris Petersen disciple, and you’ll see plenty of that on Saturday. One thing I think may surprise Tech fans is how big MSU is and how much the guys look the part. These aren’t guys who are 6’5 270 with bad weight. Senior Bryce Sterk (6’5 261lbs) transferred in last year from UW and led the league in sacks and TFL and is as physical a specimen as they come; he was buried at UW behind some NFL guys – a theme for the next two guys as well. Sterk led the league from his buck end position, but they felt good enough about newcomer UW transfer Amandre Williams (6’2 235lbs) that they actually moved Sterk to the strong side. Plugging the middle in our 3-4 defense is UW grad transfer Jason Scrempos at (6’6 299lbs), and opposite him will likely be senior Montana boy Derek Marks (6’2 260lbs) who can play every position along the DL. He should have a solid senior year.

Perhaps the best unit on the field belongs to our pair of senior safeties who both will get NFL looks. Brayden Konkol (6’2 215lbs) has NFL size and is arguably the best open field tackler in the conference. Jahque Alleyne (6’1 187lbs) came in last year from Virginia Tech and immediately led the league with 5 interceptions. He has great balls skills and is extremely fluid. The concerning part for this game is the CB depth which took a hit with pre-season All-Conference CB Greg Filer sustaining an injury. So atop the depth chart is true sophomore Ty’Rhae Gibson (6’1 170lbs) making his first collegiate start at CB, but opposite is a pair of battle tested veterans and there is some depth. The number one guy to keep an eye out for is again Troy Andersen, (6’4 233lbs). Most believe he has an NFL future at LB and as a true freshman he played both ways at RB and LB on the way to earning freshman of the year. Last year he switched to QB to provide depth and ended up winning the job and all he did was lead the nation in rushing TDs from his QB spot despite missing a few games, rushing for 1,515 yards, 21 TDs, 6.9 YPC and something like 13 runs of 50+ yards. He is taking that speed and athleticism to LB and Bobcat Nation is pumped to see him in his first live action as a “most-time” LB, meaning he will still probably get 10-12 touches a game on offense either as a wildcat QB or a FB. This is a kid who ran a 10.88 100M in high school so speed is one of his strengths. Overall I think more Bobcat fans are excited to watch our defense than our offense.

4. What are the keys to victory for Montana State? What absolutely must happen for the Bobcats to pull off the upset against a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team?

Win the turnover margin and dominate the time of possession. MSU was 12th in the nation last year in turnover margin, but a big part of that was not turning the ball over in our QB power single-wing throwback offense we had to run with Troy Andersen. It will be interesting to see how we protect the ball this year. Texas Tech has a new coach, new OC, and the plan as I understand is to up the tempo even more which could lead to some early season mistakes against a veteran, solid defense like Montana State. Establish the running game and don’t ask very much out of your freshman QB making his first start. Get to Bowman early which will only happen if the secondary can make him hold onto the ball for a few extra seconds. There also may need to be a special teams play, something MSU has done very well since Choate took over.

5. The last time Texas Tech met with Montana State was 80 or so years ago in 1938, where The Red Raiders beat the Bobcats 35-0. Is this game about to be the longest version of “revenge is a dish best served cold”? What’s Montana State’s MO going into the 2019 season and how does the game against Tech fit into that goal? Game prediction?

MSU’s MO at this point is that they are a QB away from being a top-10 FCS team and making a deep playoff run. That may be a bit of a biased take but most publications seem to lean that way as well. Coach Choate specifically commented in his Monday presser than nowhere in their pyramid does it say we have to beat Texas Tech to achieve our goals. What that means is the FCS playoff committee does not hold FBS losses against you, in particular if they are against top FBS opponents. There is a certain D1 win requirement to be considered for the playoffs so obviously you shrink your window by losing an FBS game, but in the end a loss won’t hurt you that much, and the pressure is always on the FBS team in these games as the FCS team has almost nothing to lose. Don’t get me wrong, though, an FBS win is a huge resume booster for the playoffs. All that said I expect both teams to be fairly vanilla because neither team wants to show much on film for future opponents as both teams are breaking in some new coaches and personnel. MSU isn’t coming to lose but Choate is a smart guy, he isn’t going to throw everything and the kitchen sink and winning a game with a very low percentage of winning. I think the Red Raiders win this 47-17 or so in a game that’s closer than Red Raider fans would like into the 2nd half. TTU’s athletes will just be too much and too deep for the Bobcats to pull out a win here.

Again we want to give a huge thank you to R&R Cat Cast for taking the time to answer questions. You can find their twitter page/podcasts here, and be sure to listen to the Air Raid Podcast’s response to these Q&A’s here.