BOZEMAN — Montana State’s 2017 football schedule has been nothing short of exhausting. The Bobcats have already played five ranked opponents in their first eight games and are set to host another — No. 25 Kennesaw State — this week.
Yet Saturday’s contest against the 7-1 Owls is unique in that it is a nonconference game that falls abnormally late during a season in which the Bobcats are still fighting to stay alive in the Big Sky Conference race.
MSU has two difficult league games looming: Nov. 11 at NAU (which is ranked 18th this week) and Nov. 18 at home against archrival Montana. While coach Jeff Choate said Monday that he doesn’t favor playing a non-league game this deep into the schedule, it gives his team the chance to go head-to-head with another quality foe.
“I look at it as the glass is half full,” Choate said. “Obviously you don’t prefer to play a late-season nonconference game, especially when you’ve got a conference stretch like we have with an NAU and a Montana backing this up.
“But where we’re at right now, this is an opportunity for us to play a ranked opponent and maybe position ourselves for some things. I think it’s a game that has a lot on the line for both teams, and it should be an interesting contest.”
MSU associate athletic director Dan Davies told 406mtsports.com on Monday that the Kennesaw State game has been on the docket since the fall of 2015. It’s a one-off matchup, and the Bobcats will pay KSU a sum of $200,000 for making the trip.
The last time Montana State played a nonconference game in November was during the 1997 season, a 20-19 loss to Cal Poly on Nov. 8 of that year. In 2015, MSU hosted East Tennessee State, an FCS independent at the time, on Oct. 24.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Choate said. “When you’re in a league with 13 teams, you don’t need to be playing nonconference games (in) Week 9 or 10. And so it is what it is. Did I want a Week 2 bye? No. But that’s just how the schedule lined out this year.
“Like I said, I’m glad we’re playing a team as good as Kennesaw State because I think it helps our players to focus. They know that we’ve got a huge challenge in front of them. I think it piques the curiosity of the fan base; they know that they’ve got another Top 25 opponent coming in here and that we play a competitive schedule.
“If you want to make some noise in November you’ve got to play good teams and you’ve got to be able to have the ability to win some of those games.”
Kennesaw State is a 36,000-student institution in Kennesaw, Georgia. Its football program is only three years old, and is a member of the Big South Conference.
The Owls, coached by Brian Bohannon, utilize a triple-option offense in the mold of the Big Sky Conference’s Cal Poly. Bohannon, who is in his third season as coach, is a disciple of Paul Johnson, having coached under Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech.
KSU quarterback Chandler Burks makes everything go. His 10 rushing touchdowns lead the Big South.
Choate would rather focus his attention on the Big Sky Conference this late in the year, but must contend with a Kennesaw State team that has won seven consecutive games and is 21-9 in its three seasons of existence.
The Bobcats are 4-4 overall and 4-2 in the conference, one game back of three one-loss teams in the Big Sky standings — Southern Utah, Weber State and Eastern Washington, all of which trail first-place Northern Arizona, which remains unbeaten in league play.
“Any time you’re playing a team like (Kennesaw State) that’s so unique and their style is so different, you better have tunnel vision on them,” Choate said. “We know this is a team that’s capable of coming in here and getting after us if we’re not 100 percent focused on them.
“So what we’re trying to do is go 1-0 on Saturday, and then that takes care of itself. Regardless of what happens down the road, we’ve got to be able to win this game to be able to set us up to talk about some of those things. We’ve got to have 100 percent focus on this opponent, and it’s a very good opponent.”