CHENEY, Wash. — Montana State’s game at Eastern Washington on Saturday was decided by 12 points — a 31-19 Eagles victory. But Bobcats coach Jeff Choate thought it was closer than that.
“They had every opportunity to close us out and make that a rout,” said Choate, whose team trailed 24-7 in the third quarter before rallying. “The score probably doesn’t indicate how competitive this game was.”
Regardless, it was another tough loss for MSU, which saw its overall record fall to 2-4 and its conference mark even out at 2-2. The No. 10 Eagles were the fifth ranked opponent the Bobcats have played thus far, and MSU went 1-4 in those games.
The Bobcats have used more than 20 first- or second-year players this season. And in the context of a young team growing up on the fly, they learned another tough lesson. MSU lost three fumbles inside Eastern Washington’s 25 yard line, which negated a defensive performance that limited Eagles’ quarterback Gage Gubrud to 224 passing yards, 141 below his season average.
Montana State cooked up a good defensive scheme but didn’t make enough plays to win. The biggest sequence occurred in the fourth quarter when Gubrud and the EWU offense managed to get a first down out of a third-and-26 situation and went on to score the game’s most important touchdown with 3:09 left.
The Bobcats have lost six one-possession games in the past two seasons (so far), and while their defeat Saturday to EWU wasn’t technically decided by one possession, it stung just as much. If not worse.
“There’s two different ways teams can respond: Teams can shut down or teams can fight,” said defensive tackle Zach Wright, who forced a fumble from Gubrud in the first quarter. “Me personally, being around this team, being around my brothers, we’re fighters.
“It’s not matter of, are we going to crash and burn? Because we’re not. Every single guy in there is (ticked) off right now. And we’re going to come back and we’re going to keep fighting.
“It doesn’t matter what the season looks like even if it looks dire and there’s no hope, we’re all right there. We’re right on the edge. We’re ready to take it.”
The Bobcats travel to play Northern Colorado this week.
MSU’s defense got a key reinforcement Saturday with the return of middle linebacker Josh Hill.
Hill had missed the previous three games with a leg injury. He produced in spades against Eastern Washington, making 17 tackles.
“It felt good to get back out there,” said Hill, a sophomore from Kalispell Glacier. “It’s pretty hard sitting on the sideline, watching my team play for a couple weeks. Especially in warmups it felt really, really good to get back out there.”
Hill, though, decried the loss.
“We need to win games like that. We’re right there," he said. "It’s those positions that we seem to put ourselves in a lot, most every game that we’ve played in the last two years. It seems like we’re always on the losing side of it, which is extremely frustrating.
“We’re playing teams at a really high level and we’re right there. Once we as a team figure out how to push over that hump, we’re going to be really good.”
Choate said early last week there was a good chance true freshman Troy Andersen would play on both offense and defense against Eastern Washington, and he wasn’t blowing smoke. Andersen carried the ball seven times as a running back and made two tackles as a strong-side linebacker.
But what wasn’t expected was the use of receiver Kevin Kassis as a defensive back. Kassis had two catches for 40 yards, ran the ball once for one yard and even attempted a pass on a two-point conversion. He also had two solo tackles on defense.
“I thought he did some nice things,” Choate said of Kassis. “He had a couple tackles, and really most of it was going to be man-to-man. He’s a good athlete, he’s got good short-area quickness. We didn’t put a whole lot on his plate — it was about four calls. He gave us probably 15 to 20 snaps today, and we needed it.”