Montana State is in the FCS playoffs for the third straight season. In all three years, the Bobcats have opened the postseason against a first-time opponent.
This year, eighth-seeded MSU (9-2) will take on UT Martin (10-2) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bobcat Stadium. The Skyhawks are coming off a 32-31 first-round win over Missouri State and coming to Bozeman during one of the most tumultuous times in recent MSU football history.
Here are five things to watch in what could be MSU’s final game of the season. It will be streamed on ESPN+ and will air on the Bobcat Radio Network and msubobcats.com. No cable or satellite channel is broadcasting the game.
Going into this week, most of the uncertainty at quarterback seemed to be on UT Martin’s side. That changed Thursday, when MSU’s Matthew McKay announced he was entering the transfer portal.
McKay started all 11 games at QB for the Cats, and head coach Brent Vigen nor offensive coordinator Taylor Housewright said McKay would be benched against UTM. But sources have told both 406mtsports.com and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that McKay lost his starting job after MSU’s most recent game, a 29-10 loss at rival Montana on Nov. 20.
What remains unclear is who will start for the Cats on Saturday and how much that starter will play. Tommy Mellott has received the second-most snaps at QB this season by a wide margin, but the freshman from Butte has only thrown four passes. Vigen said Monday that he wants the offense to be more balanced.
“We can’t let the defense dictate like we did that day (in Missoula), so we’ve got to do things that are within our capabilities and certainly try to strike a balance,” Vigen said. “Doesn’t mean we need to be throwing the ball all of the sudden 30-35 times, but we better find a way to complete the ball a decent amount and utilize our players on the outside.”
Tucker Rovig, who started the final 12 games of the 2019 season, has been listed as McKay’s backup all season, including this week. The redshirt junior from Idaho completed 61.6% of his passes for 1,969 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions last season. Both he and Mellott have received a significant number of snaps with the first-team offense, per the Chronicle.
The bye week “was pretty significant” for the health of banged up all-Big Sky first-team running back Isaiah Ifanse, Vigen said. Saturday’s forecast in Bozeman also includes strong winds, so a heavy rushing attack might be MSU’s most logical approach.
UTM has a similarly murky QB situation. Keon Howard, a Walter Payton Award finalist and the Ohio Valley Conference player of the year, missed last week’s game with an injury. He was listed on the pre-Missouri State depth chart, but Dresser Winn ended up being the starter.
Howard is not on this week’s depth chart and will not play, according to UT Martin play-by-play broadcaster John Hatler. It’s not clear if that means he’ll be sidelined. After all, MSU’s depth chart released Wednesday included McKay. UTM coach Jason Simpson didn’t mention Howard’s status in his press conference on Monday.
Against Missouri State, Winn completed 23 of 43 passes for 272 yards, two TDs and one interception. The redshirt senior rushed seven times for negative-8 yards and was sacked twice.
The offensive lines
The spotlight will be on MSU’s offensive line Saturday for several reasons: the QB situation, the recent offensive struggles, the continued absence of injured starting right tackle TJ Session and UTM’s defense.
Vigen said the Skyhawks are “extremely active” on defense, with lots of movement from their three-man front. Rush Reimer, Session’s replacement, praised UTM’s D-linemen for how hard and fast they play.
“It’s going to be hard to pick up all of their line stunts and pressures,” Reimer said Monday.
UTM’s 128.7 rushing yards allowed per game is best in the OVC and 34th in the FCS.
The Cats have one of the best D-lines in the FCS. Nose tackle Chase Benson and end Daniel Hardy both earned first-team all-conference honors, and end Amandre Williams earned an honorable mention. Behind them is Big Sky defensive player of the year Troy Andersen and all-conference second-team linebacker Callahan O’Reilly.
MSU has the seventh-best passing defense, 19th-best rushing defense and 11th-best total defense in the FCS.
“Is that the best defense we’ve played? Yeah, probably,” Simpson said Monday.
Against Missouri State, UTM wide receiver Donnell Williams caught seven passes for 178 yards and a 37-yard TD pass that put the Skyhawks up 32-31 good with 3:36 left. Much of his success came in one-on-one matchups.
“They had plenty of one-on-one matchups they were getting in that game, so they were able to throw the ball down the field,” Vigen said.
Vigen noted that UTM’s offensive game plan would probably change if the mobile Howard can play, and the Skyhawks might not get as many one-on-one chances against the Cats. Either way, MSU’s defense will be tested, especially if Simeon Woodard primarily covers Williams. Woodard was in coverage for several of Montana’s biggest passing plays on Nov. 20.
On the other side, MSU’s Lance McCutcheon has been a one-on-one nightmare all season. The senior from Bozeman earned a first-team all-Big Sky selection because of his ability to make catches in every level of the secondary. Countless times, McKay threw the ball in McCutcheon’s general vicinity and McCutcheon came down with the catch, even while tightly covered.
Coaches often stress the importance of winning the turnover battle. Turnovers obviously matter, as UTM showed last week when it forced six of them (three interceptions, three fumbles) while allowing just one.
And yet, the Skyhawks needed a late TD and a last-minute defensive stand to win. MSU had a 2-1 turnover margin against Montana and trailed by 26 points until the final minute. The Cats also had negative turnover margins in their previous two games, against Idaho and at No. 5 Eastern Washington, and they won both of those games.
Context is crucial. UM’s one turnover against MSU was a forced fumble on a fake punt that Justin Ford returned for a TD. MSU intercepted two passes, one from Jeffrey Manning Jr. deep in MSU territory and the other from Andersen at the Grizzlies’ 31. MSU’s offense barely moved the ball after either INT, and Ford’s TD happened four plays after Andersen’s pick.
The Cats will have a hard time winning on Saturday if they finish with a negative-five turnover margin. Then again, their defense is good enough to stop opponents from capitalizing on mistakes, and the offense could make up for any turnovers it commits if it plays more like its early season self.
Okada, MSU’s starting nickelback, exited the Montana game late with an injury and had a sling on his left arm. The all-Big Sky second-teamer might not be 100% on Saturday, but he should be available, per Vigen.
“If we played last week, he maybe wouldn’t have played,” Vigen said. “But I think he’ll be able to go at it.”