BOZEMAN — There isn’t much question about what coach Jeff Choate will decide to do when Montana State’s offense has the ball in a short-to-mid-yard fourth-down situation in manageable field position.
It’s not a radical philosophy. Through eight games, Choate has elected to go for it on fourth down 19 times, tied with Northern Arizona for the second-most tries in the Big Sky Conference behind Cal Poly, which has gone for it on 24 occasions.
The difference is that the Bobcats are converting at a ridiculously high rate — 78.9 percent (15 for 19), fifth-best in the FCS. Even more startling is that MSU has converted nine consecutive fourth-down attempts combined in its past three games.
Choate has faith that his offense will move the chains in these situations. By now, coordinator Brian Armstrong already knows when it’s coming.
“As a play-caller, any time we’re not backed up I’m kind of assuming that we’re going to go for it,” Armstrong said this week as the Bobcats prepare to host No. 25 Kennesaw State on Saturday. “Then if coach thinks we punt it, we punt it. But I always kind of go into it having a play in mind.
“There’s a lot of times where (Choate will) say on third down, ‘Hey if you don’t get it, we’re going to go here.’ Even before you call the play on third down that gives you some good stuff so you know you don’t have to go for it all. You can get into something manageable that you can convert.”
The Bobcats were successful on their only fourth-down attempt last week against Idaho State. On fourth-and-1 in the first quarter, running back Troy Andersen raced ahead for an 11-yard gain. That led to a touchdown pass from Chris Murray to Mitch Hebert and, eventually, a 28-14 victory.
The week prior in a 27-24 win at Northern Colorado, MSU went 3 for 3. The first conversion — a 7-yard Murray pass to Kevin Kassis on fourth-and-5 — also led to Herbert touchdown catch.
Murray threw incomplete on Montana State’s first fourth-down try in a 31-19 Week 7 loss at Eastern Washington, but the Cats closed that game by going 5 for 5.
Of the Bobcats’ 15 fourth-down conversions, eight have led directly to touchdowns. And of their 19 attempts, just four have been from 5 yards or longer.
“A lot of them have been short-yardage, and when you’ve got a play that’s one to two yards it’s all about a mentality that you’re going to get it,” senior left tackle Dylan Mahoney said. “I think we’ve done a good job of that, having that physical mindset that we’re going to move this ball no matter what it takes.
“I love it. (Choate is) kind of putting it on the O-line’s shoulders. He’s kind of calling us out. He’s saying, ‘I believe in you guys.’ I love a coach that has that much trust in us up front and being able to believe that we’re going to get it.”
The Bobcats’ 15 fourth-down conversions are the most in the Big Sky and the second-most in the nation behind Bryant, which has been successful on 16 of a staggering 29 attempts.
But MSU ranks No. 1 in the nation among teams that have attempted to go for it on 10 or more fourth-down plays.
(It should also be noted that MSU ranks second in the Big Sky and in the top 20 of the FCS with a third-down success rate of 44.6 percent.)
Murray, the Bobcats’ dual-threat sophomore quarterback, has made good on 10 of those 15 successful fourth-down tries, either with his feet or his arm.
Choate is perfectly content to punt when the situation calls for it, but he also knows MSU’s offense has a hot hand right now on do-or-die downs.
Still, that’s only part of an inexact formula.
“I’d love to tell you that I’ve got a secret book in my back pocket that tells me what club to draw on, but that’s probably not true. It’s more of a feel thing,” Choate explained. “What I try to do is I try to examine how is their offense playing? How is our defense playing? What do we need to do at this particular moment?
“It’s probably more of an art than a science, I guess, in some respects, because you have to take into account all the different variables that are going on in the game — weather conditions, momentum, all of those things play into it.
“I feel like we’ve got a guy in (Murray) that is kind of an x-factor a little bit, too. Sometimes he can create outside the offense and have the ability to get that yard or two.”
Kennesaw State, this week’s opponent, ranks in the middle of the pack of the FCS in fourth-down conversion defense. The Owls have allowed eight conversions on 15 chances.