BOZEMAN — Montana State’s offense possessed the ball for only 20 minutes and had just 51 total plays to work with in last week’s 16-14 nonconference home loss to Kennesaw State.
When the balance is tilted like that, each snap becomes more magnified.
Naturally, Bobcats offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong said this week that he wished he could have a play or two to do over again. Especially the final call, which resulted in a Chris Murray interception that ensured defeat.
“When you only have 51 snaps you never know which one or two are going to make the difference in a game,” Armstrong said. “In a two-point game you could pick one and say, ‘Boy, if we’d just done this different or done that different.’
“Again, we find a way to put ourselves in position to win but don’t get enough to win. So the journey continues.”
The late-game interception versus Kennesaw State — on which Murray said he “didn’t finish the throw the way I needed to” — could be viewed as a microcosm of the sophomore quarterback’s career so far.
Two plays earlier, Murray fired a 25-yard strike down the field to Jabarri Johnson to move into KSU territory.
On the errant throw, the intended receiver, Kevin Kassis, appeared to be open on a deep out. Murray simply missed him. As a result, Owls safety Taylor Henkle snared it out of the air.
Consistency is the key.
One of the big storylines surrounding the MSU offense in August was whether or not Murray could take the next step as a passer. He started out hot, throwing seven combined touchdowns in September games against South Dakota State and North Dakota.
But Murray has thrown just six TDs in the six games since. His completion percentage now sits at 49.2 percent. In 11 games last year it was at 44.8.
“I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied,” Murray said, adding that he needs to improve on “consistent decision-making, just knowing where to go with the ball in certain situations and being good at situational football.
“At times I lack that, and at times, when I do a pretty good job of that, it’s easy to move down the field pretty fast.”
Things don’t get easier this week as the Bobcats (4-5, 4-2 Big Sky) travel to play No. 24 Northern Arizona (6-3, 5-1). The Lumberjacks are MSU’s seventh ranked opponent so far this season.
NAU’s defense shows similarities to that of Kennesaw State, which benefits from a solid secondary and the ability to pressure the quarterback. Both Armstrong and coach Jeff Choate said it’s incumbent on them to find more efficient ways for Murray to throw the ball.
“We’ve got to put together a really concise plan and get some rhythm throws for Chris and do a good job of finding our balance again and being consistent,” Choate said. “I think some of the responsibility is on us, too, to find his groove.
“At the end of the day Chris’ best asset is still his legs. That can sometimes be a double-edged sword. He wants to get out of the pocket and he knows (he) can pick up X amount of yards by doing this, but there’s still plays to be made down the field.”
Murray is just 60 yards shy of becoming the first Montana State quarterback to rush for 1,000 in a season. He is tied with Cal Poly’s Jared Mohamed for the Big Sky Conference rushing lead. Murray’s seven rushing touchdowns rank second in the conference.
But consistent balance continues to elude the Bobcats’ offense, which is something Armstrong tried to diagnose this week.
“I think some of it is how effective we are at running the football,” Armstrong said. “Sometimes when you really run the football super-effectively you can create some mismatches on the perimeter which can get you some easier throws. Consistency is some of it, definitely.
“There’s a bunch of reasons, but those would probably be the couple that jump out at me. Some weeks (defenses) do a good job of taking away some of the things that (Murray) does really well throwing the football. That makes it challenging.
“I don’t think he has to be Tom Brady or anything, but we need to try to find a way to get some rhythm throws, and he’s got to be willing to take the rhythm throws at the same time.”