BOZEMAN — Feeble execution in crucial situations plagued Montana State a year ago. Case in point: The Bobcats’ final possession in their 20-14 home loss to Northern Arizona last Oct. 8.
MSU began that decisive drive at its own 28-yard line with 1:46 to go, but moved the ball only 35 yards on eight plays. The Bobcats incurred a damaging holding penalty that negated a 10-yard run by quarterback Chris Murray, and the game effectively ended a few snaps later when Murray was stripped-sacked by hard-charging NAU defensive end Siupeli Anau.
“Against NAU, we’re going down to have a chance to potentially win that game, and we had Dylan (Mahoney injured) in that game, and we were kind of juggling some tackles in and out, and they had a really good D-end, and it was a bad matchup for us," coach Jeff Chaote recalled.
"That’s something we could have done better as a coaching staff, was schemed some of our protections to maybe not allow that matchup to be such a problem for us.”
The NAU loss is one example of the Bobcats' late-game inconsistency. MSU also fell short in the waning moments against North Dakota and Sacramento State.
Choate has pinpointed situational efficiency as a key component of fall camp in the run-up to the 2017 season, and it's been drilled accordingly through the first two practices. Toward the end of Friday’s second helmets-only outing, the Bobcats were put through the paces, in particular, in third-down scenarios.
“(Thursday) was a mix-down day for us, so first-and-10, second-and-medium, second-and-short,” Choate said. “Today was a third-down day so we did the exact same thing today, and (Saturday will be) a red-zone day, and then we get into some special categories: Two-minute offense, four-minute offense, end of game situations ... we’ve got things scripted in every day at the end of practice to try to hone in on some of that.”
“It’s a learning curve,” he added. “How is (Murray) going to learn how to win in those situations? You’ve got to put him in those situations. The good news is — not just in practice, but in games — he’s been in some of those situations.”
Quarterbacks coach DeNarius McGhee said Murray has shown, so far, that he has made strides in situational awareness and leadership. Self-correcting mistakes is another area both Choate and McGhee have noticed as part of Murray’s progress.
Last season, the Bobcats’ offense converted only 32.1 percent of its third-down plays. That ranked 12th in the 13-team Big Sky Conference. Patience on “money downs” — third-and-8, for instance — is where Murray is also showing growth, McGhee offered.
“That is so tough for a quarterback,” said McGhee, who had a record-setting career as the quarterback at MSU from 2010-13. “You want the first down right now. You want to be able to throw the ball eight yards and be done with it. It takes time. I think it takes a lot of deliberate practice.”
With 61 penalties in 11 games, the Bobcats had the fewest infractions of any team in the Big Sky in 2016. But, as Choate has alluded to, MSU was flagged in a handful of times at important moments. False starts, holding calls ... it adds up.
Murray said he and the offense have taken to the specifics of situational practice.
“We’re more dialed in and focused each play, knowing the down and distance and knowing what to do and being more aware of taking care of the ball," he said. "We had one turnover (Thursday). Our goal every day is one turnover or less, and today we had none. We accomplished that.”
On scholarship: Beginning at the Big Sky Kickoff media event last month in Park City, Utah, Choate has more than once noted the high value of backup quarterback Brady McChesney. On Friday, Choate announced that McChesney, a redshirt sophomore, is now on scholarship with the Bobcats.
McChesney, a Kalispell Glacier product, has yet to take a live-game snap and will be battling all camp to keep his spot as Murray’s backup against the likes of impressive freshmen Tucker Rovig and Callahan O’Reilly. McChesney, likened to a trusty 7-iron by his teammates and coaches, grasps the importance of the part he plays.
“Just do my job and compete as hard as I can,” McChesney said Friday. “Chris is our best chance at winning right now with all the intangibles he has. Obviously Tucker Rovig has a lot of intangibles too, with the height and arm he has.
“I’m just here to continuously push them, and I kind of have that next-man-up mentality. If my number is called, I’ll be ready.”
“For him to understand his role and embrace his role tells you what kind of teammate he is,” Choate said of McChesney.