BOZEMAN — With one victory in its final two games, Montana State will clinch its first winning football season in four years.
The Bobcats hope to do it Saturday when they host Big Sky Conference combatant Northern Colorado a week ahead of the always-anticipated clash with rival Montana, which will be played Nov. 17 in Missoula.
“We’ve got an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done around here in a while, and I think that’s significant, and that’s important,” said coach Jeff Choate, who is seeking his first winning record in three seasons at MSU. “And then we get another game. That’s a huge deal for us.
“Progress has got to be measured in a couple of different ways, but the most important way that you measure progress on the athletic endeavors is on wins and losses.”
By that measure, the Bobcats have advanced at a slower pace than Choate perhaps envisioned when he was hired following the 2015 season, which was the team’s first losing campaign in 14 years.
Choate enters the game against Northern Colorado with a 14-17 overall record at MSU. The Bobcats went 4-7 in 2016 and 5-6 last year.
Choate admitted this week that his program has had to be patient while working to take the next step.
“It’s been a struggle. We’ve had kind of incremental progress around here," he said.
“We’ve had some good moments, but I still think we’re waiting for that breakthrough moment. We had some opportunities this year. I guess we’re just not ready for that yet.”
The Bobcats again fell short in games against the upper echelon of the Big Sky and the FCS, losing 45-14 at No. 3 South Dakota State, 34-17 to No. 5 Eastern Washington, and 34-24 at No. 7 Weber State.
In Choate’s tenure, Montana State is 2-10 against ranked FCS opponents. In the midst of learning difficult lessons, the Bobcats believe there is still a lot to play for.
“You look at these last two games, and you’re staring an old enemy in the face,” MSU defensive tackle Zach Wright said. “It’s not about the fact that we can’t really get anything left out of this season anymore — except that we’re fighting for pride.
“To fight for that winning record, to fight against the Griz, to make our last statement in the Big Sky.”
A winning record is the first hurdle for Choate and MSU, but the team wants more. The Bobcats hope to become a Big Sky title contender, a playoff team and, maybe one day, make a deep postseason run.
Just how far away are they?
“I’m sure people are speculating. I’m sure people are nervous or upset or angry, but people need to understand that what they see on the outside isn’t necessarily what’s going on on the inside,” said Wright, a senior getting ready to play his final home game.
“I can attest, with all my experience and everything that I am, that this program is only going up. The quality of men that we’ve recruited and the quality of people that have been involved in this program is the best group of people that I’ve ever been around.
“Never before in my life have I been a part of a team where I can look at every single guy and know they are 100-percent committed, despite whatever issues they may be struggling with or despite their past. Everyone that has been here, to me, has shown dedication. The culture of a team is what’s more valuable than anything.”
After last season ended with a second consecutive victory over Montana, Choate talked about 2018 being a year in which the Bobcats could set some loftier internal goals. But a quarterback saga, injuries to a few key players and an inability to win against top teams hung over their inconsistencies.
The Cats' playoff hopes took a serious hit when they lost 24-17 at Idaho State on Oct. 27. Still, a win over Northern Colorado would serve as a milestone moment in the Choate era.
If the Bobcats were to follow that up with a third straight victory over Montana they would hit the seven-win threshold, which would at least put them in the postseason conversation as a long-shot at-large candidate.
As he prepares to say goodbye to the MSU football program, Wright conveyed his belief that the Bobcats are close to turning a corner, and that a specific mindset will be what makes the difference.
“It’s about being your best when the best is needed. It’s kind of an intangible thing to be able to grab a hold of,” he said. “It’s not something that happens just by telling somebody to do it or forcing yourself to do it. It’s about each guy knowing that when it’s their time, they rise.
“You see our inconsistency with the way we’ve been performing. Sometimes we’re really great, sometimes we’re really bad. It’s about getting everyone to the point to where they can be consistent. And what necessarily changes that? You can’t really find one thing, except you just go back to culture. That’s the biggest hurdle.
“A lot of people don’t see what we’ve been building. We’re right on the precipice. I think you give it another year or two, if the culture keeps building like it needs to be, you’re going to see high levels of success.”