BOZEMAN — Defensive lineman Zach Wright had one word to describe Montana State’s mindset entering its odd-timed yet imposing nonconference matchup with No. 25 Kennesaw State on Saturday.
“Determined,” Wright said.
The Bobcats, 4-4 overall and 4-2 in the Big Sky Conference, are mathematically alive in the league title chase with three games remaining, and still have an outside shot at a playoff berth — as it stands right now.
But they can’t afford a slip-up.
Kennesaw State (7-1) is the sixth ranked team the Bobcats will play so far this season. Montana State comes in having won two straight games, but the Owls of the Big South Conference have won a program-record seven in a row and are also in position for playoff spoils.
MSU has league contests looming against Northern Arizona and Montana. The Owls, in just their third season of existence, still face conference foes Charleston Southern and Monmouth.
This is an important game for both teams.
“The way the season has gone with us playing a lot of ranked opponents and making sure we function on all levels for four quarters, it hasn’t come easy,” Wright said. “But we’re getting to the point where we’re being able to fire on all cylinders. Being 4-2 in conference when we were 0-6 (at this time) last year, it’s a big boost to us mentally.”
“We’re both kind of in the same boat,” KSU coach Brian Bohannon offered. “They’ve got two big games left in conference, we’ve got two big games left in conference. We’ll see if we can go out and compete.”
Here are storylines to follow as the Bobcats go for their third consecutive victory:
Triple option: MSU defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak used an interesting analogy to describe the triple-option offense, which Kennesaw State uses to churn out 329.4 rushing yards per game.
“It’s like the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan,” Gregorak said. “It’s nothing short of chaos every play.”
Defensively, the Bobcats must contend with KSU quarterback Chandler Burks, who leads the Big South with 10 rushing touchdowns, and backs Jake McKenzie, Shaquil Terry, Darnell Holland and the like, as well as an offensive line that comes off the ball hard and uses cut blocks to create running lanes.
The offense is “designed to take advantage of the guy that doesn’t do his job right,” Wright said. “So it’s important for each of us to do what we’re assigned to do.”
Tackling: Montana State’s tackling has had its ups and downs. Usually it’s good ... but other times it’s sloppy.
A big onus will be put on sure tackling against the Owls. As will the need for each player to execute responsibility on the defensive end.
“You’ve got to be so assignment sound,” Gregorak said. “If you play with good eyes and execute your job and keep yourself alive so to speak in terms of playing the (cut blocks) and staying off the ground, we’ve got a chance.”
Running rotation: Expect a wintry setting on Saturday. And though the snow is supposed to taper off a bit by kickoff, conditions won’t be ideal. That may favor a strict running team like Kennesaw State, but MSU is the top rushing team in the Big Sky at 244.9 yards per game.
Quarterback Chris Murray, the leading rusher in the league, and running backs Nick LaSane, Troy Andersen and Edward Vander (if available) could be counted on to carry the load again to match KSU’s production on the ground.
Keep in mind: MSU is 15 for 19 on fourth-down plays and have converted nine in a row. That could play a factor again Saturday.
Turnover margin: The Bobcats had two interceptions in a win over Idaho State last week, including one that was returned 18 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Mac Bignell in the fourth quarter to help seal the 28-14 triumph.
But with a plus-14 turnover margin, Kennesaw State protects the football as well as any team in the FCS. By contrast, the Bobcats are minus-2 in turnovers.
Will MSU be able to force the Owls into giving the ball away?
Mental fortitude: Bobcats coach Jeff Choate recognized his team lost its composure on more than one occasion last week against Idaho State.
The Bobcats were flagged for three personal foul penalties. That came a week after LaSane, a key piece of the offense, was disqualified for targeting early in a win at Northern Colorado.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Choate said. “I think we finally have some swagger around here, but now we’ve got to draw a line. I was very disappointed in our lack of composure in certain situations.
“Those are things that we’ve addressed internally and will continue to address. This is a violent game. You’ve got to have an edge to you to go out and play it. But there’s always a fine line.”