BOZEMAN — Chris Murray was already having a big day, but toward the end of Montana State’s first fall scrimmage Saturday afternoon the sophomore quarterback provided one more highlight, just for good measure.
Showing a heightened level of poise and awareness in the pocket, Murray spotted receiver Mitch Herbert cutting across the middle of the defense. Herbert used fellow wideout Kevin Kassis as leverage to gain separation from man-to-man coverage, and Murray hit Herbert in stride for a 68-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
That’s something you didn’t see a lot of last season, and it was only part of the storyline: Murray finished the day 10-for-13 passing for 196 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. In a further plot twist, he had just 16 rushing yards.
Granted, it’s just a scrimmage, but the arduous process of morphing Murray into a more complete quarterback seemed to take another positive turn for the Bobcats. Murray, accomplished as an explosive runner but in need of fine-tuning as a passer, was on point throughout.
“It was really nice. He kind of showed his growth in passing today. He’s really confident,” said Herbert, who had three catches for 93 yards. “He’s come a long way since last year just working over the winter and summer, and it was great for him to get out and do what he did today.”
Murray was sharp from the outset. The Bobcats’ offense began the scrimmage in a “backed-up” situation — with the ball on their own 2 yard line. On the first play, Murray rolled left and connected with Kassis for a 44-yard gain.
MSU’s offense had the upper hand early in these situations. On the second play from the 2, running back Logan Jones found a crease and scampered 31 yards. A couple plays later, Murray hit Herbert for 13 yards for another first down.
Among Murray’s other highlights was a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Connor Sullivan during a two-minute drill, a play in which Murray hung in the pocket, then rolled right and found his target.
“You can see Chris grow all the time. You just can,” second-year coach Jeff Choate said.
“I think he still has a tremendously long way to go to be the finished product that we would like him to be and that he wants to be, but you can see the growth,” Choate added. “It’s a continuous process with him, and we’ll be as good as he allows us to be, because I do think we have some pieces around him.”
One of those pieces is running back Troy Andersen, a freshman from Dillon who continues to make a strong case for immediate playing time. Andersen rushed eight times for 70 yards, showcasing an ability to both pound the ball between the tackles and run with speed on the edge.
Meanwhile, Sullivan, the team’s best pass-catching tight end, had two touchdowns, and Choate lauded the effort of his first-team offensive line, which right now consists of tackles Dylan Mahoney and Mitch Brott, guards Jake McFetridge and Caleb Gillis, and center Alex Neale.
“I think we came out with the right mindset today,” Mahoney said. “Our offensive coaches have been on us since Thursday that this is a game-like mentality, and I think we came out with a game-like mentality.
“We carried that through the whole scrimmage, and that’s what allowed us to hit those big plays, and grind out drives. So it was a good day.”
The struggles of the defense were attributed to poor communication in the secondary — as well as a slow start. The defense surrendered 75 yards on the first two snaps.
Safety Bryson McCabe and linebacker Mac Bignell, both senior captains, took responsibility.
“I just don’t feel like there was energy, and that starts with me and Mac. We need to bring a little more energy,” McCabe said. “But definitely, the offense, they came out firing today. We just need to execute in these type of situations, and now we know, go back, watch the film and keep practicing.”
“That was probably one of the things that was a little bit discouraging is we did give up some explosive pass plays,” Choate said. “Good job by Chris and the receivers and the o-line executing, but at the end of the day those guys were a little too open.”
It wasn’t all bad for the defense. It did collect seven touch-sacks against the quarterbacks and forced two fumbles. Lineman Chase Benson had two sacks, while linebacker Jackson McCleery and “Buck” defensive end Chad Kanow — both freshmen — stripped the ball from veteran running back Nick LaSane.
Freshman cornerback Jalen Cole had a chance at an interception but let it slip through is grasp. Cole later dislodged a pass from Sullivan with a hard hit down the field, which is impressive when you consider Cole gives away nearly 100 pounds in that matchup.
The team held meetings afterward to go over the film and adjust.
“Probably the one thing I would have liked to see was a little more edge and a little more physicality on the defensive side,” Choate said. “I think those guys just kind of eased into things today, and if you ease into things you’re going to get hit in the mouth. It’s a great opportunity to learn.”
The Bobcats have an off day Sunday but will return to the practice field Monday as their Sept. 2 season opener at Washington State draws closer.
NOTES: Freshman QB Tucker Rovig threw for 144 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown to WR Keon Stephens down the sideline. ... K Gabe Peppenger made field goals of 28 and 40 yards. Luke Daly’s 48-yard attempt sailed wide right. Daly, though, had a 74-yard punt. ... Choate said DE Michael Jobman will return to the practice field “100 percent” on Monday after missing some time with a minor knee injury.