Rob Ash has often described Montana State’s defensive philosophy as simple, straightforward and to-the-point.
There aren’t many secrets to what the third-ranked Bobcats do. There aren’t a whole lot of disguises and there certainly aren’t any tricks.
They just line up and play football.
“A lot of what we do is just turning those guys loose and let them go play,” said Ash, MSU’s sixth-year coach. “A lot of defenses have schemes where on every play they’re assigned to drop or stunt, or angle or slant. But our guys just line up, react and go.
“We have certain assignments, but they’re never prescribed like some defenses. It’s one of Jamie’s most important philosophies. He likes to keep it simple so our guys can play fast.”
“Jamie” is sixth-year defensive coordinator Jamie Marshall. And his philosophy is paying dividends this year thanks to MSU’s depth and athleticism.
Entering Saturday’s game at Sacramento State, the Bobcats (7-1, 4-1 Big Sky) rank No. 1 in the conference in rush defense (63.9 ypg), No. 2 in pass defense (221.9 ypg), and are first overall in total defense (285.8 ypg) and second in scoring defense (22.0 ppg).
Marshall has built MSU’s unit from the front line outward.
A formidable — almost unblockable at times — defensive line affords the Bobcats the luxury of playing things pretty straight against opposing offenses.
Ends Caleb Schreibeis and Brad Daly combine with All-America tackle Zach Minter to lead the way. Their penchant for consistently pressuring the pocket and corralling ball-carriers allows MSU’s linebackers and safeties to play much more freely.
“Their ability to read the situation and be sound on their assignments and still play fast is really impressive,” Ash said of the D-line. “Those guys are so experienced that they can get off the ball and read the play on the fly whether it’s a run or a pass.
“That’s the secret to their success.”
If you’ve noticed, the Bobcats don’t blitz very much. That’s because they simply don’t need to.
The staunch determination of the front line leaves linebackers like Jody Owens and defensive backs like Darius Jones with much more leeway to rely on their instincts and find the football.
But it’s a two-way street.
“The D-line particularly, they get a lot of help from the guys on the back end too,” Ash said. “When our guys are able to hold off routes in coverage and make a guy go to a second receiver, it gives the guys up front a little more time to get to the quarterback.
“It’s a combination and a real team effort.”
MSU’s pass defense has improved greatly in the last few weeks. Early in the season there may have been some concern, but the Cats have limited their last two opponents — Eastern Washington and North Dakota — to a combined 305 passing yards while racking up 12 sacks.
To date, the Cats rank second in the Big Sky behind Montana with 29 sacks. Schreibeis, a product of Billings West, leads the team with 7 ½ sacks.
The Bobcats’ defense doesn’t get a ton of takeaways. But they’ve continued to rely on their simple, line-up-and-go scheme to find success. To wit: MSU ranks No. 1 in the Big Sky in third-down defense, and has forced opponents to punt the ball 54 times — the second-highest total in the league.
The next endeavor for MSU comes Saturday against Sacramento State (6-3, 4-2) and quarterback Garrett Safron.
“He’s really good,” Ash said of Safron. “He’s very athletic. You move him out of the pocket but he can throw the ball from a lot of different places.
“He throws the deep ball down the sideline very well. It’s a big staple of what they like to do. It’s going to be a real challenge for us.”