BOZEMAN — Another week, another barnburner for coach Jeff Choate and Montana State.
This time the Bobcats survived by virtue of a 27-yard field goal from kicker Gabe Peppenger as time expired for a 27-24 road victory Saturday at Northern Colorado. MSU trailed by two touchdowns at halftime, but did not fold.
It was Peppenger’s first game-winning field goal. It was the first walk-off win of Choate’s protracted coaching career.
“It was nice finally coming through,” sophomore receiver Kevin Kassis said. “It just showed a lot of maturity on our part, kind of growing up. It showed that we’re on the way to something big.”
It's also a big learning curve. Choate and his young Bobcats — they’ve used more than 20 first- or second-year players this season — have been put through pressure cooker several times over the course of the past two campaigns. The UNC game was Montana State’s 10th one-possession outcome in that span.
It began with Choate’s first game as coach last year at Idaho, a 20-17 loss. It continued as the Bobcats beat Bryant by three points, lost to North Dakota by two, Sacramento State by three and Northern Arizona by six before beating Montana by seven points in the season finale.
This season has included a four-point loss to South Dakota State, an eight-point loss to Weber State, an eight-point victory over Portland State, and last week’s three-point thriller over UNC.
You can even throw the Eastern Washington game from two weeks ago into that mix, though it wasn’t a one-possession game: It took a late fourth-quarter touchdown by the Eagles to produce a 12-point win over MSU.
That's 11 "fourth-quarter" games in the past two years.
As the Bobcats prepare to host Big Sky Conference rival Idaho State on Saturday, Choate addressed his team’s habitual propensity to play in close games seemingly week after week — for better or worse.
Youth and still-developing talent, coupled with diligent coaching, are a few of the reasons.
“I think we do a pretty good job of coaching our guys and coaching to our strengths,” Choate said. “Now, we’re playing 15 true freshman, so we needed an influx of talent in this program, and those young men have stepped in and, I think, accounted (of) themselves very well.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, you’re not a young team anymore, these guys have played this many games.’ There’s some truth to that, but they’re also not mature adults. They’re not 21-, 22-year-olds that have had two or three years to develop in the weight room and within a system.
“I think that speaks to the job that our coaching staff has done and the resiliency of our players. They’ve bought in to what we’ve asked them to do. We know how to get ourselves in position to win games. We figured out on Saturday how to go win one of those. That’s what you’ve got to do. My job is to put our young men in a position to win a game, and right now that means getting it into the fourth quarter.”
Idaho State, Choate said, has elite talent. Linebacker Mario Jenkins, the Big Sky’s leading tackler, is a prime example. So is 315-pound offensive lineman Skyler Phillips, who is an NFL prospect.
By contrast, Choate said, “Who are our all-conference players? A walk-on from Drummond, Montana (linebacker Mac Bignell), right? Let’s just call it what it is. We’ve got a guy from Spirit Lake, Iowa (safety Bryson McCabe) that scraps around and might be an honors candidate for us. Our quarterback (Chris Murray) is definitely a difference-maker.
“(But) I don’t see the level in talent right now. I think that’s where we’ve got to take the next step.”
Until then, as Choate has said more than once, the Bobcats will compete with abandon for 60 minutes against teams that have more straight-up skill — and against teams that don’t.
It took a 13-play, 73-yard drive in the final minutes to beat Northern Colorado last week, a drive on which MSU converted three crucial third-down plays.
“That was huge,” Kassis said. “That was a good drive.”
Choate confirmed Monday that linebacker Grant Collins is out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury. Collins was hurt late in the game at Eastern Washington. Choate said Collins will undergo surgery.
“What we’re going to miss the most, there’s nobody on our roster that practices harder than Grant,” Choate said. “He’s a great effort player. That intangible, the leadership that he brings through his actions and how he plays is something I think we’re going to miss as much as his production.”
Meanwhile, Choate said there is hope injured cornerback Tyrel Thomas will be cleared this week, but safety JoJo Henderson, it appears, is not likely to play against ISU.
Linebacker Balue Chapman reinjured his shoulder versus Northern Colorado, and Choate said MSU will “see how he progresses.” Running back Edward Vander missed much of the UNC game with a sprained ankle.