BOZEMAN — In August, Montana State defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak referred to Mac Bignell as one of the best outside linebackers in the Big Sky Conference. On Monday, Gregorak upped the ante.
“I told Mac he’s playing at as high of a level as I’ve ever got to coach from a linebacker,” Gregorak said. “He’s like a man possessed. He is playing really, really good football right now.
“It’s not perfect. He has a couple areas (of improvement) each game. Like I told him, I said, ‘I think you’re one of the best defensive players in this league. If you can take one or two of those errors out of your game you might be the best.’”
Through two games, Bignell, a senior from Drummond, has made 18 tackles (four for loss) with one sack and one forced fumble. More profound is the way Bignell is playing — by flying to the football and imposing his power and strength on ball-carriers.
Bignell on two occasions last week sent South Dakota State players waddling to the sideline. In the first quarter, Bignell sized up Jackrabbits quarterback Taryn Christion and planted him into the turf, a vicious hit that was ultimately deemed roughing the passer by the officials.
Christion remained on the ground for several minutes and eventually left the field. In a display of toughness, Christion returned to rush for two first-half touchdowns.
In the second half, Bignell drilled 6-foot-5, 265-pound tight end Dallas Goedert, a genuine NFL prospect with 45-pound advantage — at least — on Bignell.
Goedert went to the sideline with the aid of SDSU’s athletic training staff. He later returned, and finished with 11 receptions for 132 yards.
Bignell also forced a fumble from SDSU running back Brady Mengarelli at a key moment in the fourth quarter, but Mengarelli retained possession. It was the school-record ninth forced fumble of Bignell’s career.
In spite of Bignell’s efforts, the Bobcats lost 31-27 and fell to 0-2.
Gregorak, who has coached a laundry list of quality linebackers in his 13-plus years as a defensive coach (particularly at rival Montana) said Bignell is “our one true warrior right now that I know is going to go play hard and fast and physical and smart every play he’s on the field.”
Still, Gregorak said Bignell needs to bring the rest of Montana State’s defense along with him.
Following losses to SDSU and Washington State, both Gregorak and head coach Jeff Choate noted the Bobcats’ sloppy tackling. Gregorak said it will be a big focus during practice this week — MSU has a bye on Saturday — while Choate said the defense will continue to fine-tune itself.
The Bobcats resume play Sept. 23 at North Dakota, their first Big Sky Conference game of the season.
“I don’t think we have a ton of elite players on (defense) right now,” Choate said. “I think we’ve got some young guys that could be elite players down the road, and we’ve got Mac, who is a very, very good player. So we’ve got to play very sound, we’ve got to have great eyes and we’ve got to be sure tacklers.”
There will be much for Choate and the coaching staff to consider during the bye week, including the process of finalizing its travel roster for the Big Sky portion of its schedule.
Choate said he and his assistants will continue to determine whether they have certain players lined up in the right positions to maximize results on the field.
“We do have some personnel issues I think we’ve got to address through the bye week,” Choate said. “I won’t get into those now, but I think there’s some things that we’ve got to really examine in terms of moving forward.
“Do we have the right guys at the right spots for us to be competitive in the Big Sky Conference?”
Choate did indicate that the circumstances at kicker are more fluid now than they were at the outset of the season. Strong-legged senior Luke Daly won the job in fall camp but is 0 for 3 on field goals through the first two games, including misses of 33 and 45 yards versus SDSU.
The original plan out of camp was to redshirt backup Gabe Peppenger (as well as No. 2 punter Jered Padmos) while Daly handled all kicking and punting duties. But Choate said the competition is open again.
“We felt like we had a good situation going into the year,” Choate said. “I know those guys are streaky. I’ve been around places where you’ll have a guy that will make 12 or 13 in a row and then he’ll go into a funk and can’t quite get his swing down. We’re hoping that’s not the case.
“Those guys will compete. The bottom line is performance. If you perform, you’re fine. And if you don’t then you’re going to have to fight for your job. We have a good situation because I have a lot of confidence in Gabe, as well.
“Well just kind of see how that plays out over the next week and a half here.”