Courtesy: Montana State Sports Information
Montana State's defense has spent sizeable chunks of the 2017 season fighting for turnovers and battling to knock opponent offenses off the field. In a six-minute stretch of the fourth quarter Saturday, the team's two defensive captains pushed that storyline into the past.
Senior linebacker Mac Bignell stepped in front of a Tanner Gueller pass with nine minutes to play Saturday and rambled 18 yards for a touchdown to give the Bobcats a 28-14 lead over a game Idaho State team. Six minutes later, Bignell tipped a ball that was snared by safety Bryson McCabe, and the Bobcats never gave the ball back.
The resulting 28-14 win raises MSU's record to 4-4 on the season, 4-2 in Big Sky play, while Idaho State drops to 4-5, 2-4. It marked the first time the Cats won back-to-back games this season, and pushed MSU to the .500 mark for the first time since September, 2016.
"It feels really great," Bignell said of the win, and his role in it. "(Getting turnovers) is something we've emphasized for the last three, four weeks, so it's nice to see it finally pay off."
MSU's late takeaways punctuated a back-and-forth affair that saw Idaho State control the ball but Montana State make key stops at crucial times. None of those stops proved bigger than the third quarter goal-line stand that maintained MSU's 21-14 lead. The Bengals drove from their own 29 to the Montana State three. On second-and-goal, Bignell stuffed ISU's James Madison for a loss of one. One third down, Tanner Gueller's pass was knocked down by freshman corner Tyrel Thomas. And on fourth down, Zach Wright harassed Gueller into an incomplete pass to turn the ball over on downs.
"That's as loud as I've heard it in this stadium," Wright said of the stand that came within 15 yards of Montana State's impactful student section in the Sonny Holland End Zone. The Cats didn't turn the ensuing possession into points, but it chewed five minutes off the clock and flipped field position.
Nothing, though, flipped field position better than Bobcat punter Jered Padmos. After Murray threw an interception in the end zone on the third play of the fourth quarter, Padmos punted on MSU's next two offensive possessions. He nailed a 70-yarder to pin ISU at its own eight, then hit a 40-yarder to back to the Bengals up to their own seven (a Bobcat penalty moved the ball to the 17). After Padmos' five punts, ISU's average starting field position was its own 12.
"I've never been part of a game where a punter did that so consistently," Wright said, "three, four times. And he backed them up to that part of the stadium where the crowd can really affect things."
A player whose 2017 season has been full of fits and starts also affected things. With the game tied 14-14 early in the third quarter, Nick LaSane took a check-down pass – "That was the first time he made that check this year," Bobcat coach Jeff Choate laughed – on a second-and-nine and scampered 77 yards. It was his longest career reception and Murray's longest career pass, and although LaSane was tripped just short of the goal line Murray finished the drive with a two-yard run to give MSU a lead it would never relinquish.
LaSane missed the first four games due to suspension, and exited last week's win at Northern Colorado early for a targeting penalty after the officiating crew failed to blow a play dead that was ruled down-by-contact rather than a fumble. But he made his moments on the field count Saturday, rushing 13 times for 83 yards.
Murray also registered an impactful performance, rushing for 83 yards and passing for 231. He scored one touchdown with his legs and two more with his arm, and was MSU's answer to Tanner Gueller. The Idaho State signal caller threw for 193 yards – 88 to his brother Mitch – and rushed for 16, and excelled at extending drives. James Madison carried 30 times for 105 yards for the Bengals.
The Cats get a respite from Big Sky play next week, hosting 7-1 Kennesaw State from the Big South Conference. Kickoff is 12 noon on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.