Montana State has already scored 14 red-zone touchdowns through the first three weeks of the season, the most of any team in the Big Sky Conference.
And it’s no secret why. When the Bobcats get inside the 20-yard line — and especially when they’re inside the 10 — they take on a rougher, tougher mentality. And they’ll stop at nothing to find the end zone.
Running back Cody Kirk scored three red-zone touchdowns Saturday in a 43-35 marathon victory over Stephen F. Austin, giving him four TDs so far this season. Kirk took a handful of snaps from the ‘Wildcat’ formation, and the Bobcats utilized an unbalanced line on several occasions by stacking six offensive linemen across the formation — including three tackles: John Weidenaar, Alex Eekhoff and Helena High graduate Steven Foster.
“It’s our heart as a team,” Kirk said of MSU’s red-zone proficiency. “It’s a winner’s mentality. I feel that’s what we have as a unit and as a team.”
As MSU’s sports information office noted Monday, eight of the Bobcats’ 14 red-zone touchdowns have come on the ground while six have come through the air.
The six passing TDs inside the 20 make up all but one of DeNarius McGhee’s scoring throws to date. And each of Kirk’s four touchdowns has come from the 5-yard-line or closer.
Percentage-wise, the Bobcats are 15 for 18 in the red-zone — an 83.3 percent success rate. And Kirk, a junior from Frenchtown, is one man who makes it happen.
“Running backs, if they’re worth anything, they want the ball as many times as you’ll give it to them. And Cody’s like that,” said sixth-year coach Rob Ash.
“He’s tough. He knows the situation, he knows where the goal line is, and he protects the football when he runs.”
13 and counting?
Jerome Souers’ long streak of frustration against Montana is as incredible as it is perplexing.
A one-time defensive coordinator at UM, Souers helped build the Grizzly program into a national contender in the late 1980s and early ’90s. But ever since he left to take the head coaching job at Northern Arizona, Souers is 0-13 all-time against his former school.
The Lumberjacks came close the last couple years, but fell 28-24 last year and 24-21 in 2010 on a last-second touchdown pass from Justin Roper to C.J. Atkins.
“As good as the Montana program is and has been and continues to be, it’s on us to play well enough to beat them,” Souers said last fall before facing the Grizzlies. “That’s where we’re at.”
Souers and NAU (2-1) visit Missoula this Saturday for another chance to snap the streak. The Grizzlies (2-1) are coming off a 34-14 victory over Liberty last week.
The Bobcats are 3-0 for the first time since 1978, and the win over Stephen F. Austin bumped them up one spot to No. 2 in the latest FCS Top 25 poll, released by The Sports Network. The Cats got nine first-place votes.
The ranking is MSU’s highest since its one-week stint at No. 1 near the end of last season. The Cats are also ranked No. 2 in this week’s coaches poll.
Montana (2-1), in spite of a convincing win over Liberty, didn’t move from its spot at No. 14.
Eastern Washington (1-1) was off last week but still slid ahead one spot to No. 9.
Defending champion North Dakota State (2-0) was also on a bye last week and retained the No. 1 ranking. Sam Houston State (1-1) slipped one spot to No. 3. Youngstown State (3-0) and Old Dominion (3-0) each moved up one spot to Nos. 4 and 5, respectively.
Around the league
Cal Poly CB Osagie Odiase earned the Big Sky’s defensive player of the week award. Odiase had 11 tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery and three pass breakups in the win over Wyoming. Mustangs K/P Bobby Zalud got the special teams honor. … Cal Poly’s upset of Wyoming was the Big Sky Conference’s fourth win over a Bowl Subdivision team this season. North Dakota nearly got the fifth in its game over San Diego State, but lost 49-41. … NAU’s Austin Shanks has taken a punt back for a touchdown in two consecutive weeks. Shanks brought one back 75 yards in the Lumberjacks’ 69-0 win last week over Division II Fort Lewis.