BOZEMAN — Montana State coach Jeff Choate readily admitted to being outcoached by South Dakota State on the fake field goal call that proved so costly to the Bobcats in a 31-27 loss Saturday night.
Leading by three points, SDSU kicker Chase Vinatieri was lined up for a 48-yard field goal attempt. But the Jackrabbits fooled everyone as holder Brady Hale flipped the ball over his shoulder to Vinatieri, who ran 31 yards unabated for a touchdown.
On the arm of quarterback Chris Murray, the Bobcats rallied from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to gain a decided edge in momentum, and appeared poised to knock off the No. 4-ranked team in the FCS in front of 19,817 exuberant fans.
Instead, South Dakota State — the highest-ranked nonconference opponent to ever visit Bobcat Stadium — avoided a second-half meltdown with trickery and guile.
“This one stings, without a question. It was an opportunity for us to really have a program-defining win,” said Choate, now in his second season at MSU. “This is a hollow feeling because I think our guys know that the opportunity was there. I think (this) gives us hope, but as I said, that’s a pretty hollow hope. It’s a painful feeling.”
The fake field goal was a killer, but as Choate reminded those gathered at his postgame news conference it didn’t define the game. The Bobcats made several mistakes that cost them.
Murray, though he seemed to finally “arrive” as a productive passing quarterback, threw a damaging red-zone interception in the second quarter on a pass that — had he released it a split second sooner — would have gone for a touchdown to Mitch Herbert.
Additionally, kicker Luke Daly missed wide on field goals from 45 and 33 yards, and also had a point-after attempt blocked on a protection breakdown. A holding penalty on also wiped out a 25-yard touchdown pass from Murray to Kevin Kassis in the fourth quarter.
That’s 21 (potential) points the Bobcats left hanging in the balance.
“This is a game that we should have won,” Choate said. “Two missed field goals; on the first (pass) that got intercepted in the end zone, (Hebert) was wide open. Chris, if he does it 10 times, nine times he’s going to put it on him on time. He just waited that extra second and the safety was able to get over the top.
“(We) squandered some opportunities. I think what we saw tonight was a very mature team in South Dakota State who executed when they needed to, and that was the difference in the game.”
The Jackrabbits’ superiority in execution was not more evident than on the fake field goal.
The Bobcats were selling out to block the kick, and when Vinatieri broke into the open, teammate Kane Louscher made the block that allowed Vinatieri to sprint to the end zone.
The outcome of the play put South Dakota State in exclusive territory: The last Bobcat opponent to score a touchdown on a fake field goal was Montana in 2001 — a 19-yard run by Helena’s T.J. Oelkers. It helped the Grizzlies win 38-27, a 16th straight win for UM in the Cat-Griz series.
Of South Dakota State’s chicanery, MSU linebacker Mac Bignell said “it was just a great play-call. They saw us going hard (and) almost getting a couple blocks. It was just a great call. There was nothing we could really do.”
The new normal?
Much has been made since last season about the Bobcats’ struggles in the passing game, but Murray seemed to put to rest — for now, at least — that notion that he can’t be an effective passer.
Murray, after a bit of a slow start, had by far his best game as MSU’s quarterback, completing 23-of-42 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns, all career highs.
Last year, Murray averaged roughly four completions per game.
Murray threw the ball down the field with poise and confidence. He had a 59-yard completion to Lance McCutcheon, and 41- and 26-yarders to Jabarri Johnson and Mitch Herbert that went for touchdowns.
Johnson and Herbert each caught two scoring passes.
“Dating back to spring ball and summer ball, that’s all we really worked on, to really harness our passing game,” said Murray, who also rushed for 107 yards. “I think if (we) have the right personnel and the right protection, the wide receivers will make some plays.”
A viable target
Johnson had a major impact in the passing game. He caught eight passes for 116 yards with the aforementioned touchdowns.
Johnson transferred to MSU this offseason from American River College in California, but he has previous experience in the Big Sky Conference, having been at Sacramento State in 2014 and 2015. The only catch of his career there was a four-yard touchdown against Northern Arizona in 2015.
The Bobcats recruited the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Johnson to big, viable target down the field. And though he was in and out of fall camp with minor injuries, Johnson didn’t disappoint on Saturday.
“Kind of what I expected,” Choate said. “I know he was injured a little bit early, but when that guy goes into the red zone one-on-one he’s got very strong hands. He’s a physical player.”