BOZEMAN -- Montana State coach Rob Ash wasn’t prepared to hand a remarkable 2012 season over to history.
“I’m not ready to do the overview thing yet,” Ash said after his Bobcats were knocked out of the playoffs with a 34-16 quarterfinal loss to Sam Houston State. “Let’s just talk about the game right now.”
The game, though, was history. And you can’t help but think about what MSU left on the table.
For the third consecutive season, the Bobcats came up short of their national championship aspirations.
Despite winning the most games in a season since their national title year of 1984, the Cats walked away empty handed.
MSU has won 30 games in the last three years, which represents the best three-year run of success in school history. Ash has done wondrous things with the program, both on and off the field.
But, naturally, a hungry fan base wants more.
The Cats won nine games in 2010, but lost 42-17 to North Dakota State in their playoff opener. They came back the last season with 10 victories, only to fall 49-13 to Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals.
And this year, with 11 wins, the Bobcats again had legitimate designs on a title run. But SHSU was again the thorn in their side.
Would it have been different if star linebacker Jody Owens hadn’t left Friday’s game with a high ankle sprain in the first half? Would it have been different if leading rusher Cody Kirk wasn’t bothered by a knee injury?
MSU’s record since the beginning of the 2010 season is 30-8, a winning percentage of .789. It won shares of three consecutive Big Sky Conference championships.
Still, the Cats leave a lot to be desired.
What will it take for this program to get over the hump and make a deeper postseason push? Ash, MSU’s sixth-year coach, addressed that question Friday night.
“The hard thing about playoff football is that if there were 100 teams in the playoffs, 99 of them end their season with a loss,” Ash said. “Everybody’s going to be in this boat at some point, except for the one team that wins it all. So it’s almost impossible not to end your season with a loss.
“We still have to get bigger and stronger. I think we’re getting closer in a lot of areas in our football program. But we’ll assess it like we did last year.
“I think we were a better team this year than we were last year, and we were better last year than we were the year before. And that’s going to continue to be our goal, to try to keep improving.”
Ash and his coaching staff must wave goodbye to an incredible group of seniors that really turned the tide of the program.
In Ash’s first three seasons at MSU, after the controversial firing of previous coach Mike Kramer, the Bobcats went a pedestrian 20-19 and missed the postseason each year. It was a continuation of the status quo.
But that mediocrity was flipped on its head, thanks to Ash recruits like Owens, defensive end Caleb Schreibeis, center Shaun Sampson and defensive tackle Zach Minter. They were invaluable, one of the winningest senior classes in school history.
But now they’re gone. And replacing their leadership will be a tall order. Ash knows that better than anybody.
“This group of seniors will always be special to me because they were the guys that came in before we had any championships, before we had any playoff appearances, wins over the Griz … anything,” Ash said.
“They bought in and said they would sign up and come play at Montana State. With those guys we were able to build really a great program and a great three-year stretch that’s been one of the best, most-successful periods in the history of this school. They’re leaving with a great legacy. They’ve been fantastic.”
Next season, the Bobcats will be a favorite to win (another) conference crown and should be a part of the national title chase again.
Quarterback DeNarius McGhee, who is cementing his legacy as the greatest quarterback in school history, will return for his senior season. And that’s great news. Kirk and top wideout Tanner Bleskin will also be back.
A young offensive line will be a year wiser, and should be much more consistent than it was at the end of this season.
Defensively, the Bobcats need to replace some big-time performers, not the least of which is Schreibeis, who with 12 ½ sacks, 15 tackles for loss and a Division I-leading eight forced fumbles was one of the very best players of the Ash era.
As Ash noted, the Bobcats have gotten better every year on his watch. But it’s time for them to take an even bigger leap forward and become more than just a regular-season also-ran.
It’s time for the Cats to become elite on a national level and seriously compete for the ultimate prize.
“You get that national championship -- which of course is our goal, we’ll get there someday -- but most of the time you’re going to end your season with a loss,” Ash said. “That’s just how it is.
“But you keep going back to the drawing board and try to find ways to improve, and that’s what we’ll do.”