HILLSBORO, Oregon — With Montana State’s offense sputtering in the first half, a fan from the crowd shouted out, “Put Troy in.”
The No. 13-ranked Bobcats could’ve used the spark Troy Andersen provided the last time MSU played at Portland State. Then playing on offense, he rushed for 211 yards, a Big Sky record for quarterbacks. But Andersen was now defense full-time, and the Bobcats would have to find another way to win.
Right after that fan’s suggestion, quarterback Matthew McKay converted a third down on an out route to Jaden Smith. On another third down, McKay passed to Lance McCutcheon on a hitch route, keeping the drive going once again. McKay then got the ball to Coy Steel, who was tackled at Portland State’s 5-yard line with 23 seconds to go.
But the play was called back. Holding, on the offense. Instead of a touchdown, the Bobcats headed to the locker room after a field goal, facing a halftime deficit for the first time this season.
But through all the errors, penalties and struggles, MSU earned a win on the road, 30-17, in its first Big Sky contest under head coach Brent Vigen. And that’s rightfully all that matters for the Bobcats (3-1, 1-0 Big Sky).
“Really pleased with how we responded in the second half. Portland State gave us fits today,” Vigen said. “Our guys didn’t veer off the plan. … We felt like we weren’t playing real well, but we were in good position. I love how we were able to close that game out.”
From the beginning, the Bobcats uncharacteristically helped their opponent out via mistakes. Andersen was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct that led to Portland State’s first score of the game on a field goal, giving the Vikings a lead they wouldn’t relinquish until the second half.
On the following kickoff, the Bobcats were flagged again for unsportsmanlike conduct, the second time in less than six minutes of play.
After MSU’s final touchdown, the Bobcats were called for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. This forced them to kick off from deep inside their own territory.
“We’ve got to correct that. That’s unacceptable,” Vigen said. “We’ve got to learn from it. We can’t have that again.”
On MSU’s first offensive play of the second quarter, wide receiver Willie Patterson committed a false start. This was only a prelude to McKay’s first interception of the season.
That play alone was a sign of how abnormal the first half was. Going into the game, McKay was one of five quarterbacks in the FCS with at least 600 passing yards and no picks. He’s the only one among them with more than 20 rushes and 50 rushing yards. He had minus-six yards rushing at halftime.
Going into the game, the Bobcats had committed 11 penalties for 112 yards and turned the ball over once. In this game, they committed seven fouls which cost them 78 yards.
“You get frustrated. I don’t think we weren’t ready to play, I think Portland State’s a good team and they came out and made some plays early and made it more complicated for us,” Vigen said. “We would’ve loved a faster start for sure, but the good thing was we hung in there.”
The Bobcats overcame all of their obstacles, though. They kept the game close in the first half with three field goals by Blake Glessner. They didn’t have a win sealed until late, unlike the last two weeks, but they responded each time Portland State seemed to have a chance at an upset.
“I felt like throughout the whole entire game, we were just giving them body shots, body shots,” MSU running back Isaiah Ifanse, who rushed for 217 yards on 30 carries, said. “We were just waiting for the knockout punch.”
Despite McKay’s interception, MSU won the turnover margin with two takeaways. In the fourth quarter, the Bobcats turned Portland State quarterback Davis Alexander’s fumble recovered by MSU defensive tackle Chase Benson into a touchdown pass from McKay to Jaharie Martin.
Although the Vikings had 163 yards to MSU’s 83 after one quarter, the Bobcats weren’t deflated. In the fourth quarter, when it mattered most, they tallied 133 yards of offense to Portland State’s 26.
And as MSU had its own mishaps, so did Portland State. The Vikings committed six penalties, one of which turned a first down into a punt late in the first half.
“There was no finger-pointing at halftime. We hadn’t played real well on offense. Defense was on the field too much,” Vigen said. “We’re a team. We’re a unified group and today really, I see that. I think our guys understand we’ve just got to hang in there. It’s not always going to go our way. We’ve got to hang in there, keep fighting, count on each other, and good things will happen.”
The second half was the obvious turning point. Ifanse running over defenders on his way to the end zone for a touchdown at the beginning of the third quarter, set up by a 45-yard punt return by Steel, was a sign of that.
When Portland State answered with a 75-yard scoring drive less than four minutes later, the Bobcats bounced right back. McKay found McCutcheon for a 20-yard touchdown and a lead MSU wouldn’t give up.
“Somebody was going to have to break,” said Bobcats defensive end Daniel Hardy, who totaled seven tackles and 1.5 sacks, “and it wasn’t going to be us.”
MSU’s problems were solved. And as Vigen knows from his days winning national championships at North Dakota State, a team that wins in the second half is the type of team that wins in the playoffs.
All of this says something about the Bobcats. This game easily could’ve gotten out of hand, but it didn’t. They were too composed, too well-coached and too talented.
That’s not to say these types of mistakes couldn’t end up costing the Bobcats down the line. When they’re on the road at ranked Weber State, Eastern Washington or rival Montana, those programs can take advantage of those situations. And the Bobcats know they need to be ready.
But for now, Saturday’s game showcased MSU’s resilience, something we didn’t see the last two weeks in blowout wins. And in those showdowns against the Big Sky’s best, the Bobcats can lean on this day knowing they can battle for a victory.
“It felt great,” Hardy said. “It was a tough team. They gave us their best shot. Props to them. I thought we did a good job of banding together as brothers and winning this as a family.
“When it mattered most, we made plays.”
Colton Pool can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.