A football game that harkened to both the future and the past nearly ended in a surprising present Thursday, but FBS entry Idaho had just enough to hold off Montana State 20-17 in Moscow.
There was very little difference between the former and future Big Sky rivals on this night. Idaho out-gained the Bobcats 353 yards to 300, but MSU forced one turnover more than the Vandals. Each team was penalized five times, had a 100-yard rusher, and each team played the type of physical football that an old-school coach like Jeff Choate, who led MSU onto the field for the first time tonight, enjoys.
“It was the kind of hard-fought game that I like to play,” he said. “We got them to play our style a little bit, and I thought that helped us. There is a very disappointed group of young men (in the MSU locker room) because they felt this was an opportunity for us.”
With four new players on the offensive line and a new quarterback, the Bobcat offense had one reliable weapon. “He’s a warrior,” quarterback Tyler Bruggman said of running back Chad Newell, “and he put us on his back and carried us.” Newell rushed for 105 yards on 25 carries, his fifth 100-yard rushing game, and the 25th touchdown of his Bobcat career brought his team to within three points with 9:22 to play in the third quarter.
“We fought our (butts) off tonight,” Newell said. “Idaho played a great game. In the end we just didn’t make enough plays.”
Both defenses stiffened in the second half. After MSU’s half-opening touchdown drive that covered nearly six minutes, the scoring was finished. Idaho gained just 132 yards after halftime, MSU 126. In fact, after the half’s first drive the Cats gained just 45 yards.
Choate was proud of his defense. “The defense grew up a lot in the fourth quarter,” he said, and no player demonstrated that more than Tre’von Strong. The sophomore cornerback surrendered big plays twice in the first half, but on a similar play in the fourth quarter stepped up to make his first interception.
“(Idaho’s Deon Watson) ran a fade again, but instead of an outside release he got an inside release, and instead of putting air under the ball (UI quarterback Matt Linehan) threw it on a line.” The resulting interception thwarted what could have been a game-ending touchdown with just under 10 minutes to play.
Montana State’s defense stifled Idaho’s passing game, holding third-year starter Linehan to 8-for-22 passing for just 128 yards. Linehan hurt the Cats with his legs, though, rushing for 41 yards and converting first downs twice in the fourth quarter.
Tyler Bruggman played efficiently in his Bobcat debut. He completed 20 of his 36 attempts for 190 yards. Mitch Herbert caught four passes for 62 yards, and Johnny D’Agostino was a revelation, catching a game-high six balls for 47 yards. And all this came after a shaky start for the Bobcats.
Gabe Peppenger’s opening kickoff sailed out of bounds to give Idaho the ball at the 35, and the Vandals first drive of 2016 boiled down to one big play. Matt Linehan threw a fade to Deon Watson for 36 yards to set up the Vandals at the MSU 29. The Cats held Idaho to three yards on the next three plays, and Austin Rehkow drilled a 44-yard field goal.
Unbowed, the Cats answered. MSU marched 75 yards on 12 plays, with Tyler Bruggman connecting with Justin Paige on a 12-yard scoring strike. Bruggman was 7-for-9 for 66 yards on the drive.
Idaho’s response was swift. On the following drive’s third play, Aaron Duckworth dashed 43 yards for a touchdown, and the Vandals regained a 10-7 lead. Five plays later, Siavii’s interception turned the game’s tide. He returned a Bruggman pass to the MSU 30, and four plays later Duckworth scored from a yard out.
The Bobcat defense made a big play of its own late in the half. With 3:55 remaining, a jarring hit by Bryson McCabe forced a Duckworth fumble, and Grant Collins scooped it up to give MSU the ball at the UI 24. Devon Tandberg nailed a 33-yard field goal to cut Idaho’s lead to 20-10.
Montana State regrouped at halftime, and rallied early in the third quarter. The Cats’ half-opening drive covered 81 yards, featured dominant running by Newell and precision passing, and resulted in a three-yard run by Newell for a touchdown. But that amounted to the end of serious offensive production for either side.
Thursday marked the first meeting between Montana State and Idaho since 2000, the second-longest hiatus ever in a series that began in 1905. The Vandals have won both the meetings between the two schools as non-league foes, with the next meeting likely to come sometime after UI returns to its former conference in 2018.
Until then, Choate said the Bobcats will be left to try to answer the “what-if” questions. “In the end, the only stat that matters is who won,” he said. “But I wish we could have played them one more quarter.”
Montana State Sports Information