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Bryce Sterk

Montana State defensive end Bryce Sterk rushes the passer during a game last week against Southeast Missouri.

BOZEMAN — Bryce Sterk had three sacks Saturday in Montana State’s 38-17 victory over Southeast Missouri, but it was the one he didn’t get that had the Bobcats worried.

Sterk came off the edge hunting SEMO quarterback Daniel Santacaterina on a Hail Mary from midfield with no time remaining in the first half, yet was a step (or two) slow. In the officials’ estimation, Sterk hit Santacaterina late and flagged him for roughing the passer.

That spotted the Redhawks 15 yards — and another play — and kicker Kendrick Tiller drilled a 55-yard field goal to tie the game at intermission.

MSU had dominated the first quarter but suddenly found itself in a battle.

“I really couldn’t have slowed up at that point. I was already committed to hitting the quarterback,” Sterk said of the play in question. “That’s just the refs’ call. Agree with it or don’t agree with it, it was called. You’ve just got to keep playing.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

MSU eventually stormed Southeast Missouri with four offensive touchdowns in the third quarter to pull away, but Sterk and his friends in the defensive front seven played no small part in the victory.

In particular, the line finished with 29 tackles, five of the team’s six quarterback sacks and 4.5 of its 10 tackles for loss to set the tone for what was a spirited defensive showing.

As coach Jeff Choate said afterward, those guys came to play.

“Obviously pleased,” Choate said Monday when asked about the performance. “We had a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and we’re going to need that again this week.”

The No. 10-ranked Bobcats (1-1) hit the road this week to face Western Illinois (0-2) of the powerful Missouri Valley Football Conference. The game is scheduled to kick off Saturday at 2 p.m., and can be streamed online with a subscription to ESPN Plus.

Montana State’s defensive front looks to take the momentum of its effort against Southeast Missouri and apply it to its matchup with WIU’s offense, which attacks opponents with a variety of formations, shifts, motions and sweeps, as well as a few tricks.

There were some questions regarding the Bobcats’ line entering the season considering the graduations of three senior leaders — end Tyrone Fa’anono, tackle Zach Wright and nose Tucker Yates. But with Sterk and interior players like Derek Marks, Chase Benson, Jason Scrempos, Marcus Ferriter and edge rusher Amandre Williams, MSU hasn’t taken a step back.

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Williams and Scrempos are University of Washington transfers.

Choate has said that the linebacker group is better off this year, too, thanks to improved depth. That includes Troy Andersen, last year’s starting quarterback who has moved to his “primary” position as a strong-side defender.

Andersen also registered a QB sack on Saturday.

“We definitely have a lot of game experience,” said Sterk, who already has four sacks through two games. “Myself, Chase played a lot last year, Derek Marks has been so consistent, Amandre is definitely a good addition.

“And then our linebacker corps – they’re all healthy, I can rely on all of them, they all know their calls. So I think, kind of like how cohesive we are and how much experience we have is what really elevates us.”

As a pass-rusher, Sterk is so far living up to a specific historical standard at MSU. He has 12.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss in 15 career games with the Bobcats, which is enough to make past defensive ends like All-Americans Neal Smith, Adam Cordeiro, Jon Montoya, Dane Fletcher, Caleb Schreibeis and Brad Daly proud.

“He’s just physically gifted,” Benson said of the 260-pound Sterk. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s an extremely hard worker, but sometimes when he’s going around the edge you’ll see him with his long arm and he just throws a guy by.

“I try the same move and it doesn’t work for me sometimes, you know?”

In the context of history, Choate likes the look of Sterk and the defensive line so far.

But he also knows it needs to continue to produce.

“We are who we are. We’ve spent a lot of time, energy, effort and resources to make sure that we’re good on both sides of the line of scrimmage here,” he said. “Yeah, there’s been some great defensive linemen here. But I think there’s some pretty good ones right here now.”

“I know that the (defensive backs) are happy when we can get after the quarterback the way we did on Saturday night,” Choate said. “And so I think there is a good, high ceiling for that group. I think they continue to push each other. There’s a kind of a never satisfied attitude.”

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Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac

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