When Elvis Akpla’s eligibility expired at the end of last season, Montana State was pressed to find its next top wide receiver.
So far, Akpla’s shoes are being filled nicely by junior Tanner Bleskin, who’s become quarterback DeNarius McGhee’s favorite target. Bleskin had a combined 20 catches in his previous two games.
But when Bleskin was scratched from the lineup last week at Southern Utah with an undisclosed injury, it gave other guys a chance to make plays. And no receiver had a bigger late-game impact than Brian Flotkoetter.
Flotkoetter, a sophomore and a former standout at Laurel High School, caught the game-winning TD for MSU in its 24-17 triumph over the Thunderbirds. On a third-down play from the 3-yard line, McGhee rolled right and hit Flotkoetter, who snuck inside the front pylon with a defender on his hip with just 2:59 on the clock.
It was Flotkoetter’s first career touchdown.
After the game, McGhee told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that Flotkoetter “told me all week, ‘Have confidence in me, throw me the ball and I will go get it.’
“On that play I trusted him. I threw the ball, threw it on the money and hoped he could get in. He did a great job of rubbing off and got in the end zone.”
Flotkoetter is turning into a solid secondary option in the Bobcats’ passing game, behind guys like Bleskin, Jon Ellis, Tray Robinson and Everett Gilbert.
In five games, Flotkoetter has nine catches for 78 yards, an average of nearly nine yards per reception.
A 31-26 loss at Eastern Washington marked Montana’s first 0-2 start in the Big Sky Conference since 1992. There’s usually no shame in losing to a solid EWU team, but this was different.
The Grizzlies, now 2-3 overall, had a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter but let it slip away thanks to two fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Eagles quarterback Vernon Adams and, more notably, their failure to recover an onside kick.
The Griz didn’t do themselves any favors either with two red-zone fumbles and a three-and-out on a crucial fourth-quarter possession. Those hiccups negated a 400-yard rushing performance that should have equaled a victory.
UM has now blown sizeable second-half leads on back-to-back Saturdays. Two weeks prior at home against Northern Arizona, the Griz led 24-14 at the start of the third quarter but ended up losing 41-31.
What’s the reason? Chew on this:
After losing three fumbles versus Eastern, Montana is now a whopping minus-9 in turnover margin. That ranks last in the 13-team Big Sky and 116th out of 121 FCS teams.
UM had a combined eight giveaways in both games.
Also, the Grizzlies’ defense seemed to lose its edge late after halftime in both contests.
Against NAU they couldn’t slow down running back Zach Bauman, who finished with 253 yards and three touchdowns, including 171 yards and two TDs after halftime. Against EWU, pass defense was the culprit. Adams threw for 353 yards overall, and directed an offense that gained 204 yards in the fourth quarter alone.
For his effort, Adams was named the league’s offensive player of the week.
Montana State’s defense stood pretty tall against standout quarterback Brad Sorensen and Southern Utah. The Bobcats sacked Sorensen five times, intercepted him once and held the Big Sky’s preseason offensive player of the year to a 53 percent completion rate.
In all, the Cats (5-0, 2-0 Big Sky) gave up just 319 yards of offense.
Leading the way was linebacker Jody Owens, who made 13 tackles (11 solo) with a sack, a forced fumble and two tackles for loss. Eight of Owens’ stops were on gains of six yards or fewer.
Owens, who was picked as the league’s preseason defensive player of the year, helped MSU hold the Thunderbirds to just 69 yards rushing.
Down, and now out
The biggest story to emerge from the FCS on Monday was the announcement that Montana had fallen out of the Top 25 poll for the first time in 14 years.
The Grizzlies were last unranked in November of 1998, but since then spent a staggering 195 weeks in the Top 25. Polls may not mean very much to coaches and players, but this particular ranking signaled the end of an incredible run.
The Grizzlies received 261 votes, five fewer than unranked Albany and 139 less than Tennessee State.
Mum's the word
Bobcats freshman left tackle John Weidenaar was ejected from the game at Southern Utah when he spit in the face of a Thunderbirds defensive player.
MSU’s sports information office said Monday that the team will not publicly announce any decision on internal discipline against Weidenaar.
Elsewhere, MSU’s injury report in advance of its game at UC Davis listed both running back Cody Kirk and guard Matthew Devereux as questionable, and had Bleskin as probable.
Kirk injured his right hamstring against SUU and didn’t return, which opened the door for backup Orenzo Davis to rush for 123 yards. Devereux, like Bleskin, was held out with an undisclosed injury.
As the Griz fell out of The Sports Network Top 25, the Bobcats held steady at No. 2 for the third straight week. MSU received six first-place votes.
Eastern Washington (3-1) remained at No. 7 despite the win over Montana. Northern Arizona (4-1) jumped four spots to No. 18 after a 24-10 victory over Portland State, while Cal Poly (4-0) jumped ahead three spots to No. 20 with a 35-17 win over North Dakota.
Top-ranked North Dakota State (4-0) remained No. 1 with a win at Northern Iowa, and No. 3 Youngstown State (4-0) was unmoved coming off a bye. The biggest game in the FCS this week pits NDSU against Youngstown State in Fargo, N.D. NDSU’s only loss on their way to a national championship last season came against the Penguins.
The top seven teams in the poll remained intact. Old Dominion (5-0) and James Madison (3-1) were ranked No. 4 and 5, and Wofford (4-0) is at No. 6 again.
Around the league
Sacramento State kicker Edgar Castaneda took home the Big Sky’s special teams player of the week award. Castaneda tied a school record with four field goals in the Hornets’ 54-31 victory at Idaho State. … Northern Arizona’s victory over Portland State marked the Lumberjacks’ first four-game winning streak since 2008. … NAU’s Bauman had 92 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings, giving him 3,085 career rushing yards. Bauman is 710 yards away from becoming the Lumberjacks’ all-time leading rusher.