BOZEMAN — What a difference a bye week makes.
What a difference Cody Kirk makes.
Montana State paired an off-the-charts offensive performance with a spirited defensive effort in a 55-10 drubbing of Big Sky Conference foe North Dakota on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
MSU rolled up a school-record 695 yards of offense, including 436 yards rushing. And Kirk was the linchpin.
Playing in his first game since injuring his hamstring against Southern Utah on Sept. 29, Kirk rushed 25 times for 160 yards and three TDs.
Kirk’s 3-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation late in the first quarter broke a 7-7 tie and put the Cats ahead for good.
The Bobcats (7-1, 4-1 Big Sky) scored four unanswered touchdowns before halftime, and then bled North Dakota dry with 191 fourth-quarter rushing yards.
It was a perfect performance two weeks after suffering their first and only loss of the season — a 27-24 home defeat to Eastern Washington. The off-week did wonders for the Cats.
“This was a great way to come off of that loss,” Kirk said. “I think it’s great for our confidence as a unit and as a team.”
MSU’s 695-yard output broke the previous school record of 683 yards set on Nov. 13, 2004 against Eastern Washington.
The Bobcats converted an amazing 40 first downs and averaged better than seven yards per snap. They moved the chains on eight of 12 third-down plays and scored on six of seven trips inside the red zone.
And, much to coach Rob Ash’s delight, MSU was turnover-free for the first time in over a month.
“By far the most complete game we’ve played,” Ash said. “I’m very, very excited about what I saw out there with our football team today. That’s a good team, North Dakota. They’ve played some great football.
“I think we caught them at the right time because they had played a long stretch of tough games, and we had those two weeks to stew about a loss. Sometimes that’s how football is, when you catch a team on the way up or on the way down and how the matchup goes. It certainly was great execution by our team on every aspect of the game.”
North Dakota had a field day in a 40-34 victory over Montana the week prior. So the Bobcats, seemingly, had their hands full on defense.
After all, quarterback Braden Hanson threw for 660 yards and five touchdowns against UM while top target Greg Hardin had 333 yards receiving and three scores. Both were big Sky Conference records.
They couldn’t duplicate that performance.
Under relentless pressure all day, the left-handed Hanson was 15-of-26 passing for 165 yards and a touchdown. The Cats sacked him seven times. Hardin was blanketed throughout. He had just three catches for 45 yards, though he caught a 17-yard TD pass in the first quarter.
North Dakota managed only 180 yards of offense, a far cry from the 706 it posted in the win over the Griz.
“We got our rear ends kicked,” said UND coach Chris Mussman. “We knew they were good, and I think they’re the best team we’ve played this year.”
“We knew they’d come in here feeling pretty confident that they could throw on us,” said MSU defensive end Caleb Schreibeis, who had a sack and two quarterback hurries. “And so as a D-line we knew we had to get (Hanson) down and get him thinking about us early. They never were able to get into a groove like they did last week.”
DeNarius McGhee’s performance was stellar again. The junior quarterback completed 24 of 32 for 259 yards and three touchdowns. He extended his touchdown pass streak to 33 games, and increased his school record for TD throws to 64.
At one point in the first half, McGhee completed 13 passes in a row.
McGhee’s first TD came off a swing pass to the ever-dangerous Shawn Johnson, who caught the ball out of the backfield, made a few guys miss and sprinted down the sideline for a 41-yard score in the first quarter.
McGhee later connected with tight end Lee Perkins and Jon Ellis for touchdowns.
But the story was the running game. And though Kirk got the star treatment afterward, everyone was involved. Orenzo Davis had 145 yards on just 19 carries, including a pair of touchdowns, and Johnson ran for 68 yards on six attempts, an average of 11.3 yards per carry.
The Bobcats had to sit and wait for awhile, but the Eastern Washington loss — a game the Bobcats should have won — is now a distant memory.
“You can never take any wins for granted in this conference,” said Ash, whose team will to travel to Sacramento State this week. “We have a lot of respect for Sac State. We’ll be ready to go.”
NOTES: Bobcats LB Jody Owens had two sacks and 2 ½ tackles for loss. Owens and LB Aleksei Grosulak, a Billings Central product, led MSU with five tackles each. … MSU WR Chase Young, a senior, caught his first career pass in the second half. … The victory was Ash’s 46th as coach at MSU. Ash is one win away from tying the all-time record owned by legendary coach Sonny Holland. … Hardin now has 13 touchdown catches this season, the second-most in the FCS.