BOZEMAN — In the aftermath, Jeff Choate referred to Kennesaw State’s triple option offense as “maddening.” KSU quarterback Chandler Burks made sure Montana State had few answers.
Burks commanded a 20-play, fourth-quarter drive that took 10:03 off the clock, which led to a 37-yard field goal by Justin Thompson that ultimately lifted the 25th-ranked Owls of the Big South Conference to a 16-14 college football victory over MSU on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
Montana State’s offense got the ball back with 1:55 left, but quarterback Chris Murray was intercepted by safety Taylor Henkle, and that sealed the outcome.
It had been 20 years since the Bobcats (4-5, 4-2 Big Sky) had played a nonconference game so late in a season. It was also MSU’s sixth ranked opponent to date; the Bobcats are now 1-5 in such games.
“The style that they play on offense, it’s going to be low-scoring, it’s going to be grind-it-out, and they did a tremendous job putting that last drive together,” Choate said. “I think that speaks to their maturity. Just a lot of respect for the way they played the game today.”
Embroiled in yet another tight and tense contest, the Bobcats’ defense failed to stop KSU on three third-down plays and two other fourth-down tries during its clock-eating march. The drive began with the Owls backed up on their own 2.
The most frustrating of those plays was the fourth-and-6 conversion the Owls made as Burks scrambled out of trouble and dumped the ball off to his safety net, Darnell Holland, who cut on a dime and slipped two defenders to get 12 yards and move the chains.
“He gets out of the pocket and floats the ball over the top of our flat defender, and we miss a couple tackles,” Choate said. “Guys are trying. They’re busting their tail to get there. It was a heck of a cut, and he converted the first down.”
“At that moment we just needed to get a stop, and that was huge. If we would have got off there we would have won the game,” defensive lineman Tucker Yates said.
“He just kind of scrambled around and made a great play.”
Two plays later, Choate faced a conundrum.
On second and 8 from Montana State’s 27, KSU was flagged for holding. The Bobcats were leading by one point, and Choate chose to decline the penalty in an effort to save precious seconds instead of pushing the Owls’ offense back 10 yards.
KSU fullback Jake McKenzie then moved the ball to the 20 on the next play, which set up Thompson’s field goal try. It was Thompson’s third made field goal of the day.
“At that point in time what I had to think about was, they’re grinding us out here. If I give them extra downs that’s more time off the clock, because they’re going to bleed down that 40-second clock. Do I want to give up the time or do I want to take the penalty off the board and hope that we can get the stop and preserve time? That was what I was concerned about.” Choate said.
“I wanted to be able to get the ball back with enough time to be able to go down and do what we would have to do based on the scoring margin.”
The Bobcats did get the ball back, and Murray completed a pass to Jabarri Johnson for 25 yards to push the offense inside Owl territory. Murray’s next pass was incomplete. His next pass, intended for Kevin Kassis, was intercepted.
Burks then knelt on the ball three times to run out the clock.
Of Murray’s errant pass, Choate said, “I think the ball just sailed. I think Kevin was open in the flat. Probably just didn’t snap it off quite the way he needed to. (It) needs to be a body shot in those situations.
“But we had a lot of other opportunities in that game, too. The first half we got some stops and had the ball kind of in reasonable field position, we need to go down and get it in field goal range and see if we can convert and get some points, because you knew it was going to be a low-scoring game.”
The Owls, the No. 1 rushing team in the FCS, grinded out 346 rushing yards. Burks had 149 yards on a staggering 34 attempts, including a short touchdown run in the first quarter. McKenzie finished with 116 yards.
Murray had 92 yards on the ground and scored on a 7-yard run in the first quarter. He also connected with Mitch Herbert for a 37-yard touchdown pass in the third.
But the Owls possessed the ball for nearly 40 minutes, which limited MSU’s opportunities.
“I think we felt really confident,” Bobcats linebacker Josh Hill said. “I think we came in and we showed on the defensive side of the ball that we can line up and play against some of the stuff that they were going to throw at us.
“They were going to get their yards, that’s what they do. We needed to come back and play a little bit better against it.”
NOTES: The touchdown catch by Herbert gives him 20 for his career, one shy of the school record set by Kelly Davis. ... MSU was stopped on a fourth-down play in the first half, which ended a streak of nine consecutive fourth-down conversions dating back to Oct. 14 against Eastern Washington. ... The Owls did not turn the ball over, and are now plus-15 in turnover margin.