The Bobcats started the year ranked No. 2 in the nation and on a mission to live up to high expectations, make a deep playoff run and contend for a national title. And those were legit goals for a team that had won 30 games and made three playoff appearances the previous three seasons.
Here's what Brad Daly told us during Montana State's media day in August:
“I’ve got very, very high expectations for this football team, and I think everybody does. If we don’t win the Big Sky, if we don’t at least make a run at the national championship, everyone on this team is going to be disappointed.”
In the end, disappointment reigned. The Bobcats fell short in 2013: They finished 7-5 and found themselves on the outside looking in on the FCS postseason for the first time since 2009. MSU was very much in they playoff hunt in early November, but a three-game losing streak to end the regular season -- including a 28-14 home loss to rival Montana -- derailed the Cats.
It's been nearly a week since their season came to an end, so here's a look back at the 2013 Bobcats:
WHAT WENT RIGHT
• It'll be hard for the Bobcats to say goodbye to Brad Daly. The senior defensive end from Helena Capital earned a share of the Big Sky Conference defensive MVP award, and it was well deserved: Daly had 68 tackles (20½ for loss) and 14 sacks -- arguable a better season than former Bobcat Caleb Schreibeis had a year earlier when he won the Buchanan award as the best defensive player in the nation. Daly played through injuries to his back, ankle and lord knows what else, becoming a candidate to win MSU's second straight Buchanan. Daly finished his career with 33 sacks and 46 tackles for loss, both of which rank near the top of the school record book. Daly had at least one sack in every game but two. Who can step in and fill those shoes next year?
• You knew RB Shawn Johnson would get more turns in the running game, and he ended up being the perfect complement to star Cody Kirk. Johnson finished with 609 rushing yards and six TDs, and that went well with Kirk's 1,088 yards and 18 scores (which added to Kirk's school-record touchdown total). Johnson proved to be one of the most explosive players in the Big Sky. He returned two punts and a kickoff for TDs, including an 82-yard punt return for a score to give MSU a 7-0 lead and early momentum against Montana. It's an early projection, but Johnson will likely be MSU's No. 1 back when spring practice rolls around. He showed the ability to become an every-down runner, which is exactly what the coaches were looking for out of him. Johnson will be one of the Cats' top offensive players heading into 2014.
• After starting the year 2-2, QB DeNarius McGhee returned from a shoulder injury and the Bobcats got on a roll. MSU won five consecutive games, and were 7-2 and 5-0 in the league after beating Northern Colorado on Nov. 2. MSU opened the season without LBs Na'a Moeakiola (shoulder/out for season) and Aleksei Grosulak (knee/retirement), but backup Mike Foster and Cole Moore stepped up. The linebackers were a key reason the Bobcats finished plus-6 in turnover margin: Moore and Alex Singleton combined to intercept five passes, and Foster recovered three fumbles. Singleton had a spectacular season on the outside while replacing graduated Big Sky Conference player of the year Jody Owens. Singleton led the Cats with 110 tackles and 16½ tackles for loss.
WHAT WENT WRONG
• I'm not sure how many man-games MSU lost to injuries, but obviously health was a big issue. Kirk and Johnson were both hobbled during the Southern Utah game, and that threw off the offense. Kirk never truly recovered from a knee ailment in the last two games of the year, and just wasn't as effective as usual. On one instance in the Cat-Griz game, the Bobcats' defense lost three players on a single drive. It was just one of those years. Key players such as McGhee, WR Jon Ellis, WR Tanner Roderick, TE Tiai Salanoa, WR Brian Flotkoetter, G Alex Eeekhoff, CB Sean Gords, DE Preston Gale, S Eryon Barnett, and DT Craig Ashworth all missed games with injuries. That's not to mention Daly and Foster, who limped or struggled off the field countless times. Coach Rob Ash noted how bad the injury bug bit MSU, and it's not an excuse. Different guys stepped in, but the Cats struggled to fight through it.
• The Bobcats were very explosive on offense in the opener against Monmouth, giving a glimpse of what life might be like under new coordinator Tim Cramsey. But MSU became less and less productive as the year went on. McGhee wasn't himself for much of the year, perhaps a combination of injuries and, for whatever reason, indecisiveness. The senior QB became just the 11th player in college football history to join the 10,000/1,000 club, but he missed two games (for the first time in his career) after separating his throwing shoulder at the end of the SMU game. After that he just didn't really ever look the same. The play that to me encapsulated the end of the season was McGhee's swing pass to Chad Newell on fourth down trailing by eight points with 11 seconds left against Southern Utah. Yeah, there was a mix-up on the play call, but the Cats needed to throw that ball to the end zone, and that didn't happen. It's a head-scratcher. McGhee had a spectacular career and is one of the best in Big Sky history, but it ended the way nobody thought it would.
• In the final anlysis, a three-game losing streak in November did MSU in. It started at Eastern Washington, where the Bobcats' defense didn't even force a punt. The Eagles scored touchdowns on eight of nine drives, and the only time they didn't they were kneeling on the ball at the end. MSU's offense had some good production in that game, but couldn't keep up. After that, the offense went ice cold. As has been the trend the last couple seasons, the Cats averaged 34.7 points in their first nine games, and just 19 in the final three. It's almost as if the Bobcats tighten up on offense the later they are in the season. In 2012 MSU scored 16 points in each of its final three games. This year, it scored 14 in each of its final two. In 2011, after piling up huge point totals through the whole year, the Cats averaged 16.3 points in their last three. The Bobcats need to find a way to remedy their late-season offensive swoons.
• “Expectations were not too high. Not by any means. We set the bar high and we came up short. It’s on us seniors. We didn’t get it done. We didn’t steer the team in the right way as far as the leadership goes. Expectations were not too high. The sky (was) the limit for this university and this team.” -- DeNarius McGhee
• "I don't know about (conservative play calling). We've tried shots down the field that didn't get thrown because maybe protection broke down. Maybe the guy was open and we didn't pull the trigger. There have been aggressive calls that didn't get executed right. That's why we keep using that word 'execution.' I think it's more of that than anything else.
"Usually, it's been my experience when you have a tough finish to a year then your offseason is more inspired and more motivated because you realize how close the margin is between victory and defeat, and how hard you have to work to get it back again. Na'a Moeakiola and Rob Marshall and a couple other guys are already starting to talk about the offseason program and next year. I promise you, we'll be back with a vengeance." -- Rob Ash