GREELEY, Colo. — Montana State quarterback Chris Murray didn’t play up to par in a 31-19 loss at Eastern Washington on Oct. 14. The Bobcats’ offense showed wanton carelessness for the football, and turned it over three times inside the Eagles’ 25 yard line.
It sealed their fate.
That wasn’t all on Murray, but the coaches were clearly disappointed in the leader of the offense. Coordinator Brian Armstrong made mention last week of the potential of finding players that will protect the ball if those ahead of them on the depth chart do not.
Murray was not allowed to speak to the media last week. He was to stay focused on the task ahead.
And though he threw a couple interceptions, Murray responded when it mattered Saturday in a 27-24 victory at Northern Colorado, a triumph that was sealed with Gabe Peppenger’s 27-yard field goal as time expired after a 13-play, 73-yard Murray-led drive in the final three minutes.
“We had some heart-to-hearts on Sunday about what the expectations are from the quarterback position,” Bobcats coach Jeff Choate said after the game. “(Murray) did have a couple turnovers, but you could see he was making a conscious effort to make good decisions with the football, and if it wasn’t there he wasn’t going to force it, even if it meant throwing the ball out of bounds.
“As he bought time for himself he was looking to throw and we knew we were going to have to throw the ball some in the second half.”
Choate likened Murray’s performance on the winning drive to what EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud did to the Bobcats on its game-sealing march in the fourth quarter the week prior.
Northern Colorado’s defense wasn’t rushing the elusive Murray. Rather, it kept him contained to the pocket in an effort to make him throw the ball down the field.
Murray took what the Bears gave him. MSU converted three crucial third-down plays — two on passes to Jabarri Johnson and Kevin Kassis, and another on a 12-yard run by Murray that put the team in more manageable field goal range.
It was a breakthrough of sorts for the Bobcats, who have lost too many close games in the past year and half for Choate’s liking.
“All you’ve got to rely on are the fundamentals and trust your reads and trust the coaching,” Murray said. “And that’s all I did. They weren’t rushing so I knew I had time to sit back and scan the field.
“Us finishing this game is a sign of maturity for our group.”
“When the game’s on the line you’ve got to have that point guard mentality,” Choate said. “Give me the ball. Whether it was using his legs or using his arm, he stepped up to the challenge and, I thought, really matured in a lot of ways on that drive.”
Murray completed 20 of 35 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown. Had had completed 20 passes combined in the previous three games.
Murray also rushed for 150 yards and another score. It was his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the year, and pushed his yards total to 781.
Trailing 21-7 at halftime, Choate’s message was one of patience. It was a message Murray heeded.
“We don’t need to eat this whole apple in one bite,” Choate said. “We’ve just got to relax and go make plays.”
When asked what his game-winning field goal would do for his confidence as a kicker going forward, the soft-spoken Peppenger didn’t say anything beyond the obvious.
“Definitley boosted it,” he said.
But somewhere deep down Peppenger has to feel like he’s taken the next step as a trusted member of the team. During the summer, the original plan was to redshirt both Peppenger and punter Jered Padmos in light of the return of senior kicker/punter Luke Daly to the team.
But Daly was jettisoned from the roster in September, and the need to use Peppenger arose again. His big moment came against Northern Colorado, and he didn’t waste it.
“I’m a big team guy, so if the team needs me I’ll do it,” Peppenger said. “But ultimately I want what’s best for the team, whether that (was) Luke or me, it doesn’t matter. I just want us to win.”
“It feels pretty great, mostly not for myself but the fact that we won as a team,” he said. “We wouldn’t be able to be in that position to kick a game-winner if it wasn’t for our defense and offense putting stops on the field and driving the ball down so we could be in those scoring positions.”