GREELEY, Colo. — Much to his own surprise, Gabe Peppenger was the calmest player on the field.
Chris Murray couldn’t watch as the sophomore from Missoula lined up for a 27-yard, game-winning field goal attempt with three seconds remaining Saturday afternoon. Neither could Mitch Herbert. Not even steely coach Jeff Choate could bear to look.
The entire Montana State sideline was bracing for any outcome.
But Peppenger, in a brief star turn, stepped up and kicked Montana State to a 27-24 victory over Northern Colorado at Nottingham Field.
The Bobcats had lost too many of these games before. Situational miscues, turnovers and other factors caused MSU to drop six one-possession games in Choate’s still-short tenure as coach.
But this time was different, even as Peppenger's kick started to slice before it crossed through the uprights.
“For some reason I did not feel nervous. Normally I’m nervous, but I wasn’t,” said Peppenger, a Sentinel High School grad who’d made just two of four attempts this season prior to making both of his tries against UNC. “I think that’s because I felt that the team had my back. I think that’s what made me calm.”
Chris Murray and the Bobcats’ offense drove 73 yards in 2 minutes, 42 seconds to set Peppenger up for the winning kick. Along the way, Murray completed third-down passes to Jabarri Johnson and Kevin Kassis to keep the drive alive.
Murray’s 12-yard run with just seconds remaining moved MSU to the Bears’ 9. Murray then centered the ball (taking a harmless 1-yard loss in the process), the Bobcats called timeout with three ticks on the clock and Peppenger trotted on the field.
Murray, who’d just stared down the challenge of a game-winning drive, kept his eyes averted as the field goal went up.
“I was with (center) Alex Neale and (defensive lineman Brandon) Hayashi,” Murray said. “We were just holding hands, praying. As soon as you heard our sideline cheer you knew it went in, so it was a great feeling.”
“From the snap to the kick it was pretty clean,” Peppenger said.
Peppenger also made a 20-yard field goal in the third quarter, which proved important as the Bobcats erased a two-touchdown deficit in the second half.
And they also got a big break when UNC kicker Collin Root, who had made a 34-yard kick earlier in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 24, was unable to get an identical attempt airborne as the Bears botched the snap and hold with 2:13 left.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been a part of some heartbreaking misses, I’ve never been a part of a walk-off win on a field goal,” said Choate, whose team improved to 3-4 overall and got back above .500 at 3-2 in the Big Sky Conference.
As the Bobcats moved the ball closer to Peppenger’s range, Choate said, “I was thinking, ‘Where do you want the ball? We’ll center it for you, you do this all the time in practice, and you make it every week.’
“That’s almost exactly the scenario in our Friday walkthrough where we center the ball, either right or left, and kick it. I think (Peppenger) was prepared for the moment and he was clutch.”
The Bobcats were a different team after halftime.
MSU’s defense gave up an 80-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the first quarter to Bears receiver Frank Stevens. UNC also got a 2-yard touchdown from running back Trae Riek and a 12-yard scoring pass from quarterback Conor Regan to Theron Verna just before halftime.
Verna’s touchdown came two plays after Murray was intercepted by Isaiah Swopes.
Yet Montana State’s defense had perhaps its best stretch of the season right after intermission. They held the Bears to just eight yards of offense in the third quarter and forced four consecutive punts.
Troy Andersen had a 15-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to pull MSU within 21-17, and Murray added a 4-yard TD rush — to cap a 10-play, 94-yard drive — that put the Bobcats ahead 24-21.
“Ultimately what I said to (the team) was, ‘This second half is going to define our season. This is an opportunity for us to swell up down two scores at halftime and win a game,’” Choate said. “Our guys believed in that, I guess, and they went out and played really well in the second half.”
The Bobcats will now turn their attention to longtime rival Idaho State, which they will host Saturday. Northern Colorado, under seventh-year coach Earnest Collins Jr., dropped to 2-4 overall and 1-3 in the conference.
The Bears host Southern Utah this week.
“You put so much of yourself into these things,” Choate said. “As disappointed as Earnest and his crew (are), we’re elated. It’s hard to win on the road in this league, and this is a tough place to play for a lot of different reasons. It’s a tough road trip. You take them anyway you can get them.”
NOTES: Bobcats RB Nick LaSane was disqualified for targeting in the first quarter. ... Murray finished with 372 yards of offense and accounted for two TDs, including a 6-yard scoring pass to Herbert in the second quarter. ... UNC’s Regan started at quarterback in place of Jacob Knipp, who has an injured shoulder. ... The game was MSU’s first on a grass surface since Nov. 1, 2014.