BOZEMAN — Not that defensive players are expected to score touchdowns, but it had been a long time coming for Montana State linebacker Mac Bignell.
And when Bignell found the end zone with a crucial interception return in the fourth quarter Saturday at Bobcat Stadium, his reaction was restrained.
“That was unbelievable,” Bignell said. “I kind of didn’t know what to do. I’m not like Chris (Murray). He knows what to do after he scores.”
Murray, MSU’s sophomore quarterback, has accounted for 36 career touchdowns, including three more Saturday in a 28-14 victory over Idaho State at Bobcat Stadium. But this was Bignell’s first, which made up for the would-have-been pick-six he dropped during last week’s victory at Northern Colorado.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
With the Bobcats leading by a touchdown near the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter, ISU quarterback Tanner Gueller threw a pass right at a hovering Bignell, who snared it near the right hash and ran around the left edge untouched for an 18-yard score that cemented MSU’s second consecutive victory.
“I was like, ‘I better not drop it this week, or I’ll probably lose my spot,’” Bignell joked.
That’s not bound to happen. Bignell is perhaps the most important cog in a defense that is right now playing as well as anyone in the Big Sky Conference. It was no small feat that the Bobcats rose up and shut out Idaho State’s offense in the second half.
MSU’s defense does its best work late in games. Including Saturday, opponents have scored just 38 fourth-quarter points against the Bobcats, including 10 combined in the past three games.
The Bobcats jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on two Murray touchdown passes — a 1-yarder to Mitch Herbert and a 43-yard catch-and-run by Troy Andersen. But the Bengals found their footing before halftime.
Idaho State rushed for 113 second-quarter yards and tied the game on a 4-yard run by standout running back James Madison with 3:39 left before intermission.
By game’s end, the Bengals had run 80 plays to MSU’s 57. But the Bobcats’ defense shook off fatigue in the third and fourth quarters, forced two turnovers and slammed the door shut.
“The physicality of their offensive line was the one of the things that maybe we didn’t anticipate. They ran the ball very efficiently and we had to kind of own up in there,” Bobcats coach Jeff Choate said.
Choate credited defensive line coach Byron Hout for mixing and matching rotations up front as the Bengals’ play count continued to rise. That, in turn, kept the Bobcats’ fresh.
“We played a lot of guys in the first half and I think that played out well for us in the second half. With an up-tempo offense that’s going to run a bunch of plays you’re going to get worn out, and I think we were fresh in the second half,” Choate said.
“These guys work hard in the offseason and they don’t get enough credit. We’ve been a fourth-quarter team all year, and our kids are in great condition. They play well in the fourth quarter.”
A key moment for the Bobcats occurred in the third quarter when they stopped ISU cold on the goal line. On fourth down from the 4, defensive tackle Zach Wright broke through the line and hit Gueller, which forced an incompletion.
A 15-play drive resulted in zero points.
“The thing with Idaho State, once they start going and get first downs they like to go fast — as fast as they can go,” Wright said. “We trained for it in practice, but even when you train for it it’s still tough to deal with. You may be tired, but you can’t let your technique slip.
“Gap integrity is extremely important up front. You’ve got to make sure it’s a premium. Even when you’re tired you’ve still got to stay in there, and that’s what we tried to do.”
The game’s most explosive play was a dump-off pass from Murray to running back Nick LaSane in the third quarter that went for 77 yards, which led to a 2-yard Murray touchdown run a 21-14 lead.
Defensively, MSU limited Gueller — one of the Big Sky’s most prolific passers — to 193 yards and a second-quarter touchdown throw to Michael Dean. ISU’s Madison, the second-leading rusher in the league (behind Murray) carried the ball 30 times for 105 yards.
The Bobcats evened their overall record to 4-4 and improved to 4-2 in the Big Sky Conference. Idaho State fell to 4-5 overall and 2-4 in the league.
After six Big Sky games last season, MSU was winless in the league.
“I think one of my messages to these young men (on Sunday) is that we’ve been able to win two games in a row, which is a good thing for us,” Choate said. “But we haven’t played our best football. So I think that’s one of the things that I’m really going to hold on to in terms of challenging these guys, that our best football is still ahead of us.”
NOTES: Herbert’s touchdown catch was the 19th of his career, placing him second in school history behind Kelly Davis, who caught 21 TDs from 1983-86. ... MSU announced before the game that LB Balue Chapman (shoulder) will miss the remainder of the season. It also said OL Jake McFetridge, a starter at the beginning of the year, has been removed from the roster. ... Bobcats DE Tyrone Fa’anono was scratched from the lineup with an undisclosed injury.