BOZEMAN — DeNarius McGhee is usually much more critical of himself than he was Thursday night.
Of course, McGhee hasn’t put together too many performances like the one he fashioned in a 33-6 walloping of Chadron State in Montana State’s “Gold Rush” season opener, the first-ever night game at Bobcat Stadium.
A record crowd of 20,767 watched as McGhee commanded MSU’s new-look, quick-strike offense with precision. The junior quarterback competed 29 of 40 passes — a sizzling 73 percent — with four touchdowns.
It was McGhee’s 20th career victory at MSU, and his quartet of scoring throws already gives him 51 in two-plus seasons. McGhee also extended his touchdown-pass streak to 26 games. And counting.
“I think we did some good things, but I think we also did some things not as well as we expected,” McGhee said. “But that’s the thing about a season. You don’t start a season out at your peak.
“It felt great (throwing the ball). This is the business of ball distribution, and the only thing I’m doing is getting it into the receivers’ hands so they can make plays. And they did that tonight.”
The last time Chadron State visited Bobcat Stadium, they stole an unthinkable 35-24 upset victory over the Cats in 2006. Chadron was led that day by star running back Danny Woodhead, who rushed for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns.
But Woodhead is now in the NFL with the New England Patriots, and the Eagles couldn’t contend with the Bobcats swarming defense this time.
Nor could they contain McGhee.
After a bit of a sluggish start under new offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven — it took the Bobcats three drives to pick up their initial first down — McGhee and Co. came alive. McGhee started the onslaught with a 5-yard scoring pass to running back Tray Robinson late in the first quarter, and followed that with back-to-back short TD throws to tight end Tiai Salanoa and wideout Jon Ellis as the Bobcats built their lead.
McGhee capped his night with another touchdown to Ellis in the fourth quarter, giving MSU a 26-6 lead with 6:50 remaining.
McGhee’s second scoring pass to Ellis was what MSU coach Rob Ash called, “DeNarius at his absolute finest.”
And it was. On third and goal from the Eagles’ 3, McGhee took a shotgun snap, was flushed out of the pocket, rolled left to avoid pressure, ducked back inside away from the sideline and finally dropped a touch-pass to Ellis, who was waiting all alone in the end zone.
Ellis, who had trouble keeping his hands on a few passes from McGhee, was wide open thanks to his quarterback’s creativity.
“Unbelievable,” Ash said of his QB. “That’s why he’s such a competitor and winner, because he can make plays like that.”
McGhee threw for just 176 yards, an average of a little over six yards per completion. But that can be explained by the Bobcats adjusting to their new offense, which relies on more of a spread-out, short-to-mid-range passing game during the offseason.
Despite a young offensive line that is breaking in four new starters, McGhee was never sacked, and the running game piled up 214 yards on 44 attempts. Cody Kirk led the way with 91 yards on 15 carries.
MSU suffered through some special teams woes, in particular the kicking game. First-time placekicker Trevor Bolton had his first two extra-point attempts blocked due to what Ash said was poor containment in the middle of the Cats formation.
But there were a number of bright spots, especially from punt returner Shawn Johnson. Johnson showed flashes in the punt returner role last year, and he averaged 14.2 yards on five return Thursday. His 63-yarder in the third quarter helped set up McGhee’s second touchdown toss to Ellis, which opened up a 13-point lead.
But Johnson also muffed a punt earlier, which led to a turnover, and also lost a big chunk of yards on another return while trying to create something out of nothing.
“He’s a young guy wanting to make plays,” Ash said of Johnson. “But he’s going to stay back there. I’m not going to lose my confidence in him. He’s such a weapon; we have to have him out there.”
NOTES: The game marked the return of Bobcats RB Orenzo Davis, who was academically ineligible last year. Davis rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries Thursday, and showcased the same speed and quickness that made him a 1,000-yard rusher in 2010. … Bobcats P Rory Perez didn’t suit up while serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules in the offseason. Bolton punted in his stead. … All-America DT Zach Minter was benched for the first quarter by Ash, also for an undisclosed violation of team rules. He returned to make 2 ½ tackles for loss, including 1 ½ sacks.