BOZEMAN — You barely had time to blink.
As smoke-filled air rolled slowly over the Bridger Mountains into the Gallatin Valley on Saturday, Montana State and Stephen F. Austin kept throwing gas on the fire. Big play after big play, touchdown after instantaneous touchdown.
In the end, No. 3 MSU earned a big non-conference victory, outgunning the No. 23-ranked Lumberjacks 43-35 in front of 17,147 fans at Bobcat Stadium. The win gives the Cats their first 3-0 start in 34 years.
It hasn’t always been pretty in the early part of this season, but the Bobcats again enhanced their reputation as one of the top programs in the FCS with a key victory over a quality, playoff-contending team.
“These are special moments,” said MSU receiver Tanner Bleskin, who had career highs for catches and yards. “Any win is special, but we understand the position we’re in, that everybody’s coming after us. They mark Montana State on the calendar.
“We know we’re going to take everybody’s best shot.”
Bobcats quarterback DeNarius McGhee took his fair share of shots, and was forced to elude pressure for much of the game. Often times he left exhausted — and exasperated — defensive pursuers in his dust. Without much time to throw, McGhee still managed to collect 275 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns.
His favorite target? Bleskin.
A Great Falls CMR product, Bleskin hauled in 10 passes for 180 yards and a crucial third-quarter TD in his biggest game as a Bobcat. The junior was also on the receiving end of a 57-yard pass from McGhee later in the fourth quarter, which set up a short scoring run from Cody Kirk.
The Bobcats and Lumberjacks traded the lead five times and combined for more than 900 yards of offense. SFA quarterback Brady Attaway, a game-time decision after suffering a shoulder injury last week against Southern Methodist, threw for 418 yards and three scores.
But opportunism by the Bobcats’ defense eventually won the day.
MSU safety Steven Bethley made the most critical play when he stepped in front of an Attaway pass for an interception with 2:16 remaining in the game. The Bobcats were clinging to a five-point lead, and the turnover eventually produced a 45-yard field goal from Rory Perez with 1:45 left.
It was the cushion the Bobcats needed.
“I thought the defense did a great job, and I don't normally say that after allowing 35 points and some big numbers,” said MSU coach Rob Ash. “But I really don't care. The bottom line was the score at the end of the game.
“I thought (defensive coordinator) Jamie Marshall and his guys were patient with their calls, and I thought our guys were fundamentally sound 90 percent of the time. We had two breakdowns in coverage and one missed tackle that caused big plays for them, but we got a lot of stops and got out of drives. And at the end we finally got some turnovers and got the ball back."
With defensive line stalwarts Zach Minter (hamstring) and Brad Daly (ankle) out with injuries, MSU’s defense relied on blitzes from its linebackers to keep pressure on Attaway. The Cats came away with just one sack, but they hurried the quarterback into several errant throws.
And Attaway still made several key plays.
With just seconds remaining before halftime, the Bobcats let down their guard and allowed a 49-yard scoring pass from Attaway to De’Vante Lacy that cut MSU’s lead to one point. Attaway also hit star wideout Cordell Roberson with a 75-yard TD to give SFA a 35-34 lead with 6:23 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But MSU survived, thanks also to the legs of Kirk. Utilizing the ‘Wildcat’ formation on several snaps, the junior running back from Frenchtown rushed for 105 yards on 30 carries and three touchdowns, including two scores in the fourth quarter.
Kirk’s last touchdown pushed the Bobcats over the top with just 2:26 on the clock.
What followed were Bethley’s interception and a forced fumble by defensive end Caleb Schreibeis that was recovered by Hayden Vick to seal the wild win.
“This was a great challenge for us as a team,” said Kirk, who rushed for 1,351 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago. “Playing a Top 25 team, a good squad … I feel like it let us figure out where we need to be.
“It was just a great game to be able to play.”
NOTES: Bobcats LB Aleksei Grosulak played for the first time this season, and made a big impact. The former standout at Billings Central made a key interception to snuff out a Lumberjacks drive late in the third quarter. … Roberson finished with10 catches for 163 yards. … McGhee had 38-yards rushing and an 11-yard TD run in the second quarter. … Former Bobcats RB Ryan Johnson was introduced to the crowd at halftime as part of MSU’s hall of fame induction. Johnson rushed for a school-record 3,646 yards and 27 touchdowns from 1999-2002.