DENVER — Which Chris Murray will show up?
On the road again Saturday against Northern Colorado, Montana State hopes its quarterback returns to form as the electric dual-threat player he was in September — not the turnover-prone version we say in last week’s loss at Eastern Washington.
This is an important game: With a win over UNC, the Bobcats (2-4, 2-2) will climb back above .500 in the Big Sky Conference standings.
“The stakes are definitely high, and I think we all know that,” running back Nick LaSane said this week. “We’re not in the position that we want to be in. We’ve lost a lot of really close games that we should have won.”
When Murray is on as a passer, Montana State’s offense is explosive. Take the South Dakota State and North Dakota contests as an example, games in which Murray combined to throw for seven touchdowns and rush for 239 yards.
Offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong has a name for that variant of his quarterback.
“We’ve all seen Really Good Chris, and Really Good Chris is pretty darn good,” Armstrong said. “Maybe he has a tendency to press. As a quarterback you’ve kind of got to let the game come to you a little bit. You can’t dictate everything.
“There’s no doubt he has the ability to make plays. There’s no doubt that he gives us a heck of a chance to win when he plays well. We don’t need consistently great. We need consistently good and occasionally great, but we’ve got to stay away from the bad — and definitely the awful.”
After completing 79 percent of his passes in a win over North Dakota, Murray has thrown at a mere 38-percent clip in the last three weeks, which harkens back to last season when he averaged just over four pass completions per game.
He’s completed just 20 passes total in the past three games. Some of that has to do with weather conditions, some of it has to do with the way the Bobcats have run the football — they’re among the best in the FCS — but the coaches are still pushing Murray to rise to another level.
Against EWU, the Bobcats’ offense turned the ball over four times, including three costly fumbles inside the Eagles’ 25 yard line. A game MSU could have (and probably should have) won went by the wayside.
There is always a spotlight on the quarterback, but it will never ALL be on Murray’s shoulders at Montana State. No team is a one-man show. How will the Bobcats respond?
Following are five storylines to consider as the Bobcats look to get back on the winning side:
Ball security: Obviously, turnovers will be under a microscope. The Bobcats had given the ball away just four times all season before giving their setback against Eastern Washington.
Northern Colorado comes into the game plus-3 in turnover margin, which ranks in the top five of the Big Sky.
“We have a saying that when you carry the ball you carry us all. That’s certainly true,” MSU coach Jeff Choate said. “We’ve got to tighten things up.”
Rampant running: With Murray’s ability to make plays with his feet, and with LaSane again a focal point, MSU’s running game is the strength of the offense. The Bobcats rank second in the Big Sky at 245.2 yards per game.
One factor the coaches will be closely watching is how freshman guard Lewis Kidd performs in what is expected to be his first career start. Kidd replaces senior Caleb Gillis, who was injured last week, on the left side of the line.
“He’s a big old bugger there in the middle, for sure,” Armstrong said of Kidd. “Hopefully we’re going to be able to run the ball like we have, shore up a few things and continue to improve.”
No Knipp: Northern Colorado will be without quarterback Jacob Knipp, who injured his shoulder two weeks ago in a loss at North Dakota. Backup Conor Regan is expected to start instead.
But the Bobcats will be without a key ingredient on defense, as linebacker Grant Collins is expected to miss the game due to injury, as well.
“Grant really cares about this program, he really cares about how he’s playing,” defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said. “For a guy who I know will go play hard every down, it’s a tough loss. We’ll have answers, like we’ve had answers. I hope we can get him back, that’s the goal.”
Bearing down: When dissecting Northern Colorado’s multi-look defense, Armstrong was impressed.
“They play about every defense known to man,” he said. “There’s definitely a lot to prepare for, so the challenge is to find some things that we feel good about and be able to play fast.”
MSU certainly feels good about its ground game, and one things the Bears have struggled to do is contain the run, which could play right into MSU’s hands. UNC ranks last in the league in rushing defense.
For all the inconsistency in the passing game, Murray is the Big Sky’s leading rusher with 631 yards.
BYOE: “Bring Your Own Energy” is a theme for MSU heading into what will be a, well, different environment at Nottingham Field in Greeley, Colorado.
The Bears have played just two home games so far, and have averaged less than 4,500 fans. It has the makings of a more apathetic atmosphere than what MSU has been accustomed to so far this season.
Choate said the Bobcats are mindful of falling into a trap of lethargy.