BOZEMAN — Montana State’s offense has turned the ball over just four times this season, which is tied with Weber State for the fewest giveaways in the Big Sky Conference.
That, you might say, is meticulous ball protection.
By contrast, MSU’s defense has forced just four turnovers, a number that second-year coordinator Ty Gregorak referred to as “lousy” during his weekly news conference Monday afternoon.
Gregorak knows what it takes for a defense to be prolific at taking the ball away: As linebackers coach for seven seasons at Montana under Bobby Hauck (from 2003-09), the Grizzlies were a combined plus-91 in turnover margin.
But the Bobcats were minus-7 last season and haven’t moved the needle much this year, though they are ranked solidly at third in the league in total defense.
“You sit and you ask yourself as you get into the middle of October and you go, ‘How? Why? What can we do differently?’” Gregorak said. “You don’t want kids to play outside themselves and try to do certain things that maybe isn’t their job or responsibility, but we’ve got to be on Amber Alert for the football. We just do.
“We can’t necessarily talk it and preach it, we have to go do it every day. It’s just got to become more a part of what we do. We’ve got to go get the football (in practice) from the scout team, from our offense, we’ve got to swipe and hack and CPR — club, punch, rip at the football — and we’ve got to go up and get the ball.”
The Bobcats’ defense has just one interception. Linebacker Brayden Konkol picked off North Dakota quarterback Keaton Studsrud in a 49-21 victory on Sept. 23. Linebackers Grant Collins and Chad Kanow and cornerback Damien Washington each have a fumble recovery through five games.
Coming off a 30-22 victory over Portland State, the Bobcats this week are preparing to face 10th-ranked Eastern Washington on the road. The Eagles are led by star quarterback Gage Gubrud, who has thrown for 1,847 yards and 18 touchdowns just in the past four games — all wins.
If there’s a silver lining, EWU ranks last in the Big Sky Conference in turnover margin at minus-9.
“We had some opportunities this last week that would have been really good plays. Tough grabs, but I think still catchable,” Gregorak said. “We’ve got to get the football. I don’t know what else to say. It is a little bit maddening when you’re doing a lot of (other) good things.
“We’ll see if we can flip the script this week.”
A week after not being named on the depth chart at all, jack-of-all-trades true freshman Troy Andersen is now listed at both running back and linebacker. Bobcats coach Jeff Choate said “there’s probably a good chance” Andersen will play on both sides of the ball versus EWU.
The Bobcats had originally planned to move Andersen from running back to strong-side linebacker against Portland State, but an injury to Edward Vander facilitated the need to use Andersen as a runner again. Andersen, from Dillon, rushed for 85 yards on eight carries.
“I would never in my life think, ‘Ok, we’ve got this true freshman, we’re going to play him at running back and then we’re going to get him ready to go in this package over here ... .’ You’d be like, ‘No. Just put him there. Either play man-to-man or, here’s the ball, don’t fumble.’ That’s what you do with freshmen, right?” Choate said.
“But not him. He gets it, prepares, comes in and does extra (work). I think he’s honest with himself, too. He’s not one of those guys who’s like, ‘I can do it all.’ If he’s not comfortable you can kind of tell and you know when to back off, and I think that helps us as coaches, too.”
Choate said Vander suffered a soft tissue injury against Portland State, but didn’t rule him out to play this week after conversing with MSU’s longtime head athletic trainer, Rob Higgs.
Choate also said he thinks middle linebacker Josh Hill will play this week. Hill missed the past three games with a leg injury. Meanwhile, injured defensive backs JoJo Henderson and Tyrel Thomas do not appear on the depth chart for the second straight week.
Elsewhere, it has been determined that Boise State transfer running back Jake Roper will miss the remainder of the season due to a foot injury suffered in early August, Choate said. Roper, a redshirt freshman, will undergo surgery.