BOZEMAN — Montana State’s defense had dropped its fair share of interceptions though the first seven games of the season. Then the fourth quarter happened Saturday against Idaho State.
Two big takeaways late in the game — an interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Mac Bignell and another pass snared out of the air by safety Bryson McCabe — sealed a 28-14 victory over the Bengals in front of 17,097 fans, a win that pulled the Bobcats to 4-4 overall and, more important, to 4-2 in the Big Sky Conference standings.
Forcing turnovers has not been a strength of the Bobcats this season: They came into this week minus-3 in turnover margin and had just one interception overall, which was made by Brayden Konkol in a Week 4 victory at North Dakota.
But thanks to Bignell, McCabe and a heavy-pressure defensive line that stepped up against ISU, coordinator Ty Gregorak and the defense now have something to build on.
“We’ve been harping on it a lot. Coach Ty’s done a lot of pushups,” coach Jeff Choate said after the game. “Any time we have a missed (opportunity) in practice we drop and get 10 in — just a friendly reminder that we’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities.
“Very proud of the way the young men responded.”
Bignell’s pick-six, an 18-yarder that gave the Bobcats a 14-point lead, was an instinctual play. And it came a week after he let what would have been a sure interception return for a TD bounce off his hands against Northern Colorado.
Bengals QB Tanner Gueller unwittingly threw the ball right at Bignell.
“It was just me being patient and not biting on the underneath route, and sitting and waiting for him to throw me that ball,” Bignell explained. “That’s a lot on the D-line getting pressure on him that allowed him to make that mistake, because he’s a pretty good quarterback.”
Bignell also deflected the pass that McCabe picked off near midfield with three minutes to go.
The Bobcats limited Gueller to 193 passing yards. Much of it had to do with MSU’s ability to sustain pressure in the second half, but another piece of the puzzle was the play of true freshmen cornerbacks Tyrel Thomas and Jalen Cole.
Thomas, returning from an injury that kept him out of the past three games, broke up a pass in a short-yardage, one-on-one situation during a goal line stand in the third quarter. And Cole, showcasing his physicality, made a big hit on ISU running back James Madison in the first half.
Both players came to MSU this summer from powerhouse high school programs in the renowned Trinity League in southern California — Thomas from St. John Bosco and Cole from Mater Dei. Thomas and Cole were dubbed the “Thundercats” during fall camp due to their diminutive statures and physical styles, and both are earning their stripes already.
“They played tight coverage, the windows were small for the quarterback, we weren’t playing off, we were challenging those guys, and both Jalen and Tyrel responded exceptionally well,” Choate said.
Pick up your feet
The longest pass play of Chris Murray’s career (to date) came in the third quarter when running back Nick LaSane caught a check-down pass and raced 77 yards down the left sideline to the Idaho State 2.
It set up a short TD run by Murray on the next play, but would have — and probably should have — been a touchdown for LaSane had Idaho State defender Adkin Aguirre not done enough to trip him up.
LaSane finished with a game-high 160 yards of offense, but probably deserved a better fate on that particular play.
“I’m pretty sure if he would have just picked up his feet a little bit more he would have finished,” Murray said. “I’ve been there before. Even on that run today (a 28-yarder in the first half), if I’d just picked up my feet I probably would have scored, but it is what it is.”
Montana State punter Jered Padmos spent the offseason honing his skills as a traditional punter. But after a loss to Weber State in September, Padmos and the coaching staff felt it would be better if he utilize the rugby-style roll-out approach.
It paid off in a big way Saturday, as Padmos averaged 52 yards on five punts and pinned Idaho State inside its 20-yard line four times. On possessions where they received the ball on punts, the Bengals’ average starting field position was their own 12.
Choate said Padmos was one of the Bobcats’ unsung heroes on Saturday.
“His ability to control field position, consistently downing the ball inside the (20)-yard line and forcing them to have to drive the field was a really important part of our success,” Choate said of Padmos’ rugby style.
Choate said he and the coaches told Padmos after the Weber State game, “Let’s get back to what you do well and what you did well in high school and why we wanted you here. He’s kind of embraced that.
“It’s a natural thing for him. You can see some of the cross-kicks where we catch the turf just right ... it was good.”