Big Sky Notebook: McGhee's value to Cats goes beyond stats

2013-10-14T23:30:00Z 2013-11-08T17:14:12Z Big Sky Notebook: McGhee's value to Cats goes beyond statsBy GREG RACHAC The Billings Gazette

Now a senior, DeNarius McGhee has governed Montana State’s offense immeasurably throughout his career.

Since the day he was named (anointed?) the starting quarterback before the 2010 season, the Bobcats have put up roughly 35 points and 445 yards per game. And that’s the best run of sustained offensive production in school history.

But McGhee’s passing numbers weren’t up to par in MSU’s previous game before its bye week, a 36-7 rough-up of Northern Arizona at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman. McGhee completed just seven passes for 72 yards — both career lows — and served up his first interception of the year.

Still, coach Rob Ash doesn’t buy the notion that McGhee was floundering. The low totals weren’t cause for apprehension. It was a result of the flow of the game, he said.

“They had to defend (McGhee) in the run game,” Ash said last week. “He scrambled for at least two first downs, he ran for a touchdown. His presence was extremely valuable.

“Passing game-wise, they were right on top of us. They pressed us man-to-man, and we didn’t have a lot of opportunities. Plus, the run game started to work and we were ahead. It was a good way to keep the ball away from their offense. The game plan morphed toward the running game and there was no reason to go away from it.”

McGhee missed two games earlier in the season because of a separated throwing shoulder, and he uncharacteristically has thrown just one touchdown pass so far. For record-seekers, it doesn’t bode well (McGhee came into the season on the cusp of several individual Big Sky Conference marks).

But within a team concept, the Cats are perhaps as dangerous on offense as they’ve been in the past four seasons. Cody Kirk’s hard-nosed running and the emergence of game-breaker Shawn Johnson as an every-down back give MSU one of the most dangerous rushing attacks in the conference.

The Bobcats, at 2-0 in the Big Sky and 4-2 overall, are right where they expect to be — in the mix for the league crown.

And you can only keep McGhee contained for so long. He’s bound for more big plays and more big passing games before he exits stage left at the end of this season, perhaps starting this Saturday at Weber State.

Takeaways = turnaround

Montana’s defense stole the ball from UC Davis twice during its 42-7 romp Saturday, as linebacker Brock Coyle and safety Bo Tully each made interceptions.

That puts the Grizzlies at plus-10 in turnover margin through six games, which leads the Big Sky Conference and ranks in a tie for fourth in the FCS.

There are many factors to Montana’s resurgence after missing the playoffs last season: A powerful offensive line, tough red-zone defense and limiting penalties are among them. But a rebound in turnover margin has tipped the scale.

Takeaways were the key to Montana’s run to seven conference titles and three national championship game appearances under coach Bobby Hauck from 2003-09. Combined in that span, the Griz were an amazing plus-91 in turnover margin. That added up to 80 victories.

In Robin Pflugrad’s two-year stint as coach, Montana was a combined plus-4 on the turnover ledger — minus-7 in 2010 when it missed the playoffs, and plus-11 in 2011 when it advanced to the semifinals.

The Grizzlies were minus-2 last season while going 5-6 in Mick Delaney’s first year as coach. This year they’re back on the plus side by double digits, and sit 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the league.

Blend that with a power running game that’s cranking on all cylinders and Jordan Johnson’s execution of UM’s play-action passing game, and you’ve got a contender.

With two more TD throws Saturday, Johnson now has 16 touchdowns passes and zero interceptions. He’s thrown 144 consecutive passes without being picked off dating back to his sophomore season of 2011. Johnson has thrown just three INTs combined in his previous 14 games.

Bengals bounce back

A 40-26 home victory over Northern Colorado on Saturday was a special one for Idaho State and coach Mike Kramer.

With the win, the Bengals snapped a 17-game conference losing streak, and ended a skid of 21 consecutive losses to Division I competition dating back to a 50-20 victory over UNC on Sept. 17, 2011.

Idaho Sate is 3-3 overall, which marks its best start after six games since 2005 when it was 4-2. The three victories match the Bengals’ win total in the previous two seasons combined.

Xavier Finney rushed for 146 yards in the win on Saturday. According to the league office in Ogden, Utah, Finney became the first ISU player to reach 100 yards rushing since the final game of the 2009 season, and marked the most single-game rushing yards by a Bengal since Josh Barnett had 173 against UNC in 2006.

Poll position

Though on a bye last week, the Bobcats (4-2) slid ahead two spots to No. 5 in The Sports Network’s latest Top 25 poll, released Monday. And with the big win at UC Davis, the Grizzlies (5-1) slid ahead one spot to No. 10.

No. 4 Eastern Washington (4-2) rolled to a 35-14 victory at North Dakota on Saturday, and jumped ahead two spots. Northern Arizona (4-2), in spite of a 39-38 win over Sacramento State, dipped four spots to No. 19.

Nationally, three undefeated teams remain in the poll: No. 1 North Dakota State (6-0), No. 6 Coastal Carolina (6-0) and No. 8 Fordham (7-0).

Keep an eye on Fordham. The Rams, of the Patriot League, have notable wins against Villanova, Lehigh and Division I FBS Temple. In last week’s 34-12 victory over Georgetown, quarterback Michael Nebrich tied an FCS single-game record with 20 consecutive completions, and finished with 405 yards passing.

Around the league

ISU WR Luke Austin and NAU QB Chase Cartwright shared the Big Sky’s offensive player of the week award Monday. Austin caught eight passes for a career-high 173 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Northern Colorado. Cartwright came off the bench to throw three TDs in NAU’s come-from-behind victory at Sac State. … Southern Utah CB Tyree Mills was named the defensive POW. Mills had two interceptions and three pass breakups in a 17-7 win over Portland State. SUU P Brock Miller averaged 48.6 yards per punt in that game, which helped him earn the special teams nod. … NAU RB Zach Bauman had 196 rushing yards on Saturday, which moved him into seventh place on the Big Sky’s all-time rushing list with 4,294 yards. Bauman leapfrogged Eastern Washington’s Jesse Chatman (1999-2001), and needs 182 more yards to take sole possession of sixth place.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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