BOZEMAN — Northern Arizona, at 5-2 overall and 4-0 in the league, is the lone unbeaten remaining in the Big Sky Conference. But there are five one-loss teams still champing at the bit in the standings.
Meanwhile, Montana State (3-4, 3-2) is hovering near the middle of the pack with two league losses, but still feels it has a chance to be a contender with just four weeks remaining in the regular season.
“I feel like we’re in a good spot,” Bobcats coach Jeff Choate said. “We’ve got two conference home games and one conference road game and a nonconference home game in front of us. Three out of the four games that we have are at home. We need to have great weeks of preparation and we need to cut it loose and go play.
“It’s the Big Sky Conference, man. Anything can happen. As coaches we’ve got something to point to. Just keep playing, keep worrying about us, take one snap at a time, one play at a time, one game at a time and you never know.”
The chase continues Saturday as MSU welcomes upstart Idaho State (4-4, 2-3) to Bobcat Stadium. The Bengals, coached by Rob Phenicie and led by quarterback Tanner Gueller, boast one of the top offenses in the Big Sky, and are coming off a 691-yard, 59-point outburst against Portland State.
The Bobcats’ defense, though, is one of the most productive in the league. Coordinator Ty Gregorak has proven he can scheme up a plan regardless of the opponent, and said the second half of last week’s 27-24 win at Northern Colorado — during which MSU gave up just 76 yards and forced four consecutive punts — was his unit’s best single-game stretch.
Linebacker Mac Bignell concurred.
“We were just like a train in the second half, one stop after the next. It was something that we fed off of,” Bignell said.
Following are storylines as the Bobcats look to win two in a row for the first time this season:
Stakes raised: With Idaho State’s ability to score points in bunches — 33.9 per game, in fact — it might be incumbent on MSU’s offense to follow suit. The Bobcats are only averaging 24.1 points per outing, and are scoring on only 69.2 percent of their trips to the red zone.
“I would love to score more points,” offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong said. “We need to find a way to score more points, and that’s really, in my mind, in the red zone. We need to execute better in the red zone. But again, the way we’re playing, I think, gives a chance to be in every ball game.”
Brotherly love: Gueller and his brother, ISU receiver Mitch Gueller, have forged a dynamic 1-2 passing punch. Tanner Gueller has thrown 20 touchdowns, eight of which have gone to Mitch, the most in the Big Sky.
“I think having a brother as a receiver, playing since Day 1, I think that definitely helps you out more than it hurts you,” Bignell said. “You can definitely tell there’s good chemistry between him and his receivers.
“They’re very impressive. We definitely have our hands full on the defensive side of the ball.”
Rushing matchup: Bobcats quarterback Chris Murray leads the Big Sky in rushing at 781 yards, but Idaho State running back James Madison is No. 2 with 726 yards. They are the only players in the league averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game.
“We’ve got to train ourselves (to) stop the run first,” Gregorak said. “They’re an RPO (run/pass option) team, and our second and third level, our feet and eyes have to be really, really dialed in. And our front, we just need to do a better job of leveraging the run, leveraging blocks and then obviously leveraging the quarterback.”
Super Mario: Bengals linebacker Mario Jenkins is one of the top defensive players in the conference. Jenkins, who has made a league-high 87 tackles, fills gaps and chases the ball, which could give the Bobcats’ option running game trouble.
“I think it’s hard to defend the option, but when you have the right people and when people are gap-sound consistently, it’s very hard to run the option,” Murray said. “I think Idaho State, especially (Jenkins), has proven to be consistent. That’s kind of hard, when a defensive player can be that consistent for a long period of time during a game.”
LB shuffle: The Bobcats will be without linebacker Grant Collins (shoulder) for the remainder of the season, and Balue Chapman also reinjured his shoulder last week versus Northern Colorado. His availability isn’t certain.
Bignell, Brayden Konkol and Josh Hill are entrenched as the starters, but Troy Andersen could again pull double duty at running back and linebacker, and untested true freshman Chad Kanow could see more reps.
“Linebacker’s been an issue, really, since the beginning of the season in terms of depth,” Choate said. “And so you may see Chad Kanow play more than just special teams, and those are things that we’ve got to be prepared to do.”