Cats Move to 6-1 in Big Sky with 44-39 Win Over Idaho State - KFBB.com News, Sports and Weather

Cats Move to 6-1 in Big Sky with 44-39 Win Over Idaho State

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BOZEMAN, Mont. -- On a day dominated by offense, Montana State's defense never quit playing. The end result was a couple of second-half takeaways, two other stops, and a stirring 44-39 come-from-behind win over Idaho State in frigid Bobcat Stadium on Saturday.

"They're unwavering," said Montana State running back Chad Newell of his team's defense. "They're tough. They're tough as nails."

That toughness shone after halftime, but Bobcat coach Rob Ash saw a glimmer of it at the end of the first half. It manifested on a game-changing series of events that was going to boost one team of the other. Idaho State led 27-23 with under a minute left, but Montana State's well-executed two-minute drill had the Cats at the ISU 17. Then Jake Bleskin - starting for injured Dakota Prukop - was picked off with 33 seconds remaining, and suddenly on a pair of Justin Arias passes the Bengals had first-and-goal on the Bobcat one-yard line.

On first down, Na'a Moeakiola stuffed Daniel McSurdy for no gain. On second down, Alex Singleton stuffed him for a loss of one. And with five seconds left, Zak Johnson drilled a 19-yard field goal. Idaho State got the points to take a 30-23 lead into the intermission, but Montana State got something more.

"I think that was the key point in the game," MSU coach Rob Ash said, citing the enthusiasm and momentum generated from holding ISU out of the end zone.

If the Cats had momentum coming out of the locker room, it was arrested soon. After marching the team to the ISU 20, the Bengals again intercepted a pass. But this time the defense responded. On the third play of the ensuing drive, senior Eryon Barnett made a spectacular, juggling interception. It was MSU's first takeaway in three games, and came at a crucial time.

The Cats geared up the ground game again, and Newell capped a 61-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown run. That tied the score at 30-30.

But the MSU defense wasn't done. After moving into Bobcat territory, Big Sky-leading rusher Xavier Finney was stripped by Bobcat linebacker Cole Moore, and another senior, Rob Marshall, pounced on the ball. MSU had the ball and a surge of energy, and Bleskin capitalized. He rambled for 23 yards on the drive's first play, and found Gunnar Brekke for a 24-yard touchdown on its last. MSU had its first lead.

Early in the fourth quarter, MSU's defense made another stand. With ISU at the Bobcat 11, senior nose tackle Taylor Dees stopped McSurdy for a one-yard gain on first down, then Odin Coe made a tackle-for-loss on a swing pass on second. An Arias pass was incomplete on third down, and the Bengals settled for a field goal.

The Bobcats took control of the game on the next drive. MSU marched 65 yards in eight plays, with Anthony Knight dashing the final six for the score.

Idaho State's response was swift. Two Arias completions moved the ball to the Bobcat four, and McSurdy scored to draw the Bengals to within five.

Each defense forced a three-and-out, with MSU's coming in dramatic fashion. On third-and-13, Taylor Sheridan sacked Arias and knocked the ball loose. ISU recovered, but the Bobcat defense had held firm. A Bobcat field goal was blocked on the next possession, but not until MSU had melted 3:19 off the clock. ISU took over with just over two minutes remaining. The Bengals moved the ball to the Bobcat 33, but one last fling by Arias was broken up by Bryson Keeton, and MSU had the win.

Individual highlights were plentiful Saturday, but no one stood out more than Bleskin. Passed over for sophomore Dakota Prukop in the preseason, Bleskin stood tall when his team needed him. He threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns on 25-for-35 passing, while also throwing two picks. Newell, a sophomore running back also replacing an injured starter, rumbled for a career-high 110 yards, his first 100-yard game as a Bobcat.

Defensively, Barnett's interception was a highlight-reel play in both substance and timing. He also added four tackles and a pass breakup. Na'a Moeakiola's 10 tackles led the team, but Alex Singleton hit his FCS-leading average of seven solo tackles, chipping in with two assists and two beastly tackles-for-losses. Rob Marshall recovered his third fumble of the season.

Plenty of Bengals stepped forward, as well. Finney rushed for 127 yards, Arias threw for 370, and spectacular receiver Madison Mangum caught eight balls for 147 yards and two touchdowns. KW Williams caught eight for 137 yards.

The win raises Montana State's record to 8-3 overall, and keeps the team in the Big Sky title hunt with a 6-1 record, tied for first place. Idaho State's brilliant resurgence under former MSU coach Mike Kramer hit a speed bump Saturday, but the Bengals still stand 7-4 and 5-2 in the Big Sky.The game was played in frigid conditions. The temperature was seven degrees at kickoff, the second-coldest kickoff in Stadium history.

Each team plays its rival next week. Idaho State faces Weber State, while Montana State travels to Missoula for an epic showdown with the arch-rival Grizzlies. MSU battles for a share of the Big Sky Championship, while Montana seeks a berth in the FCS Playoffs.

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