Arkansas State and Montana State have been on each other’s radar all summer: It’s what’s known as a “guarantee” game, meaning the MSU athletic department will reap a nice windfall (somewhere in the ballpark of $350,000) for making the trip.
Cynics call these matchups “bodybag” games. The big boys versus little brother. But the Bobcats haven’t exactly been left for dead in these games in recent years.
Nevertheless, MSU faces a stern challenge Saturday against A-State, a strong Bowl subdivision program that’s won three consecutive Sun Belt titles and back-to-back bowl games.
“We’ll see if it turns out to be a good decision” to play them, Bobcats coach Rob Ash said.
Perhaps the Cats’ greatest burden is tangible preparation. Arkansas State, located in Jonesboro, Ark., has a first-year coach in Blake Anderson, who was hired in December. He takes over for Bryan Harsin, who became the coach at Boise State after Chris Petersen split for Washington. Prior to that, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn was at the helm.
With another new staff in place, there’s no telling what the Bobcats will see.
“It’s been a tough preparation,” Ash said. “We can look at last year’s tape and see some of their personnel, but we don’t think the schemes will be the same as last year, so we’ve had to guess on that.
“All we know is that they’ve won a lot of games, three straight (conference) championships, and they’re a very talented team. As far as the schemes go, it will be a very interesting first quarter to see how that goes.”
Anderson, a Jonesboro native, was the offensive coordinator at North Carolina last season. The Tar Heels averaged better than 485 yards per game and ranked eighth in the nation in scoring.
Almost echoing each other, both Anderson and Ash expect to ad lib on the sideline as the game moves along.
“Like anything, the first game of the season you don’t really know what changes they’ve made as far as personnel and scheme,” Anderson said. “We just kind of have to be prepared for anything.”
“It makes you nervous no matter who you’re playing if you don’t know exactly what you’re preparing for,” Ash said. “You just prepare your side of it. It’s generic preparation. You have to get ready for lots of different things, and then we’ll pick out those small pieces (of) whatever happens to fit for what they’re running, and then we’ll try to make the in-game adjustments.”
At least MSU knows the talent it will face. The Red Wolves have several holdovers from last year’s team, which finished 8-5. Among them are quarterback Fredi Knighten (the GoDaddy Bowl MVP), receiver J.D. McKissic (1,575 all-purpose yards) and linebacker Qushaun Lee (134 tackles).
• The Bobcats will fly out of Bozeman on Friday. Their hotel is located in Memphis, Tenn., so they will bus roughly 60 miles to Liberty Bank Stadium in Jonesboro on Saturday.
Ash said his team will practice Friday before departing, then will conduct meetings and a walkthrough at the hotel.
• MSU’s previous three games against FBS opponents resulted in losses that averaged fewer than seven points -- 23-22 versus Washington State in 2010, 27-10 against Utah in 2011, and 31-30 versus Southern Methodist last season.
“We can play with these guys, but it takes a great effort,” Ash said. “You have to play almost a perfect game to win, but we’ve proven we can be close. Now we have to prove we can get over the top.”
• Quarterback Dakota Prukop is making his first start against A-State, but so is center Joel Horn. Guard Kyle Godecke suffered a broken foot in fall camp, forcing the Bobcats to tweak things up front. Horn, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound junior from Glacier High in Kalispell, has played in 22 career games.