BOZEMAN — Looking back on his team’s 45-10 dusting Saturday, Jeff Choate called Texas Tech “the best team by far” that Montana State has faced in terms of speed and skill in his three-plus seasons as coach.
That became increasingly obvious as the game moved along.
But among the positives Choate pointed to was the toughness he said first-time starting quarterback Casey Bauman showed by hanging in the pocket and taking some big hits, and the fact that the offense didn’t turn the ball over or commit a string of bad penalties.
Choate also felt good that the Bobcats came out of it healthy, which seems like a nice consolation considering that, in his estimation, they could have performed a lot better in various scenarios.
For instance, MSU was unable to convert a few short-yard plays early, and the Red Raiders eventually took 95 offensive snaps and rolled to 691 offensive yards to run away with the game in the second half.
“We knew they were going to get their yards, but we gave up some explosive plays, particularly in the run game. That was a frustrating thing about it,” Choate said. “Offensively, we didn’t take advantage of opportunities. We got ourselves in manageable situations on third down and even fourth down and really couldn’t handle their front seven.”
No matter. The team now turns its attention to a new opponent — Southeast Missouri. MSU will host the Redhawks on Saturday for the annual “Gold Rush” home opener at Bobcat Stadium.
SEMO, of the FCS Ohio Valley Conference, is a more manageable foe than Texas Tech of the Big 12, but that doesn’t make the matchup any less challenging. The Redhawks (1-0) will bring the nation’s No. 12 STATS FCS ranking into the game, which makes this a marquee nonconference clash for 13th-ranked MSU (0-1).
It will serve as a more accurate barometer for what kind of team the Bobcats have compared to the pantheon of nationally ranked teams in the FCS. It’s also a contest that could have implications later in the season.
“Let’s be frank: This is a big game. This is a big game for both programs,” Choate said. “It’s not the season, because there’s lot of football left to be played, but this is a great opportunity for both teams to establish themselves in the upper echelon of FCS football right now.”
“If you don’t test yourself early you’re going to pay for it late,” Choate said. “We’re going to get better as the year goes on. I promise you that. That’s been our mantra and our M.O. around here since I’ve been here.
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“But having an early season opportunity to kind of get on the map and on the radar of voters and (playoff selection) committee members that are making selections, I think is a huge part of taking the next step in building a program.”
SEMO, which is based in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, went 9-4 last season (6-2 in the OVC) and advanced to the second round of the playoffs, where it lost to Weber State 48-23.
The Redhawks had been a relative non-factor during the tenure of coach Tom Matukewicz until last year, when they improved from three wins to finishing second in the OVC.
In a 44-26 season-opening victory over Southern Illinois last Thursday, senior quarterback Daniel Santacaterina threw for 248 yards and a touchdown on 14 completions, and also rushed for 54 yards and two touchdowns. As an offense, the Redhawks put up 529 yards, including 281 on the ground.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Santacaterina came to SEMO from FBS Northern Illinois before the 2018 season. Last year, he was a first-team All-OVC performer.
“He’s the guy that makes it go. A very tough kid,” Choate said. “You can tell he’s the undisputed leader of the offensive side of the ball. Definitely has some swagger. He’s a good runner and he’s a willing runner.
“He’s kind of like that point guard with the clock winding down. He wants the ball in his hand. He’s going to make some plays with his feet when he needs to extend plays.”
The Redhawks’ defensive leader is senior linebacker Zach Hall, the reigning Buck Buchanan Award winner as the top defensive player in the FCS. Hall racked up 168 total tackles (12 for loss) with two sacks and four interceptions in 13 games last season.
Hall, who beat out Montana linebacker Dante Olson for the Buchanan Award, had 19 tackles and a sack a week ago against Southern Illinois.
Choate said Hall is an “extremely active, physical linebacker. He will hit the line of scrimmage with some intensity and some attitude.”
Saturday’s game is scheduled to kick off at 6 p.m. It will be broadcast statewide on the SWX Montana network.