It was probably closer than it should have been, but the Montana State Bobcats endured a strong challenge from a scrappy Portland State Vikings team to get the win and keep pace for their share of the conference lead. Coming off a road loss to Cal Poly the week prior, the Cats needed a strong performance to reestablish their status as one of the best in the Big Sky and from the start, it looked like they would get one.
On the second play from scrimmage, sophomore Gunnar Brekke — filling in for an injured Shawn Johnson — took off for a 71 yard scoring scamper. In less than a minute of play, the Cats took an 8-0 lead after a successful two-point conversion. But the Vikings answered right back with an early scoring drive of their own, driving the field in just two minutes for the score, making it 8-7.
Sophomore quarterback Dakota Prukop scored on a 9-yard sprint to the end zone to give the Cats an eight point lead once more with just half the opening quarter gone by, but then the dominant offense went dormant. After such an explosive start, the game ground to a standstill as the penalties piled up for the Bobcats.
“We were shooting ourselves in the foot,” Prukop said of the slowdown. “We call those penalties and things drive killers.”
Fortunately for the Bobcats, Portland State wasn’t having much first half success either and the teams traded punts for much of the second quarter until Gunnar Brekke broke through with 32 seconds left to put the Cats up 22-10. The Bobcat defense continued to display its inability to close out the first half though, surrendering another quick scoring drive when the Vikings went 51 yards for a field goal as the half ended, closing the score 22-13.
The third quarter was a defensive struggle as both teams failed to gain traction. The only scoring during the quarter came when Portland State blocked a punt and it skidded out the back of the end zone, resulting in a safety and two points for the Vikings.
Later in the third, Bobcat Head Coach Rob Ash made the decision to go for it on fourth-and-short on the opponents 20 rather than kick the easy field goal and go up two scores at home. The decision backfired when Prukop was unable to escape the pressure and was forced into a bad throw and a turnover on downs. However, the Vikings were unable to make much of their gift and were forced to give the ball back to the Bobcats.
Prukop scored once again, this time on a 13-yard scramble at the start of the fourth quarter to put the Cats up two touchdowns. It looked like they would comfortably close out the game and save the fans another trip to the cardiologist, but when junior running back Anthony Knight coughed up the ball on what would’ve been a game sealing drive, Portland State was still hanging around.
Another odd special teams choice came when the Bobcats, backed up deep on their own side of the field decided to try an inexplicable fake punt that was nearly blocked when junior punter Jake Bleskin aborted the fake, barely avoiding disaster.
Portland State put up a strong last minute drive, capped off with a 50-yard touchdown pass to close the gap to 29-22. However, the Vikings’ onside kick attempt went out of bounds and the Cats were able to run out the clock and grab the victory.
“[Portland State] played strong and physical,” Ash said after the game. “Especially in the first half though, we really hurt ourselves with self-inflicted wounds.”
Prukop finished the game as the leading rusher for MSU, running for 135 yards and two scores, but only throwing for 93 yards, 30 of which came on a shovel pass. Brekke added 92 and two additional scores on the ground as the Cats piled up 329 total rushing yards. Defensively, the Bobcats surrendered 407 total yards to PSU and quarterback Josh Kraght, who was making his first ever start for the Vikings. Kraght threw for 218 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 96 and another score.
Next week, Montana State will clash with a rejuvenated Idaho State Bengals squad led by former, longtime MSU coach Mike Kramer. The Bengals are coming off a huge home victory against Cal Poly and look to disrupt the Cats to earn their sixth straight win. In order to fend off the challengers, the Cats will need to rediscover their once potent passing attack and put together four quarters of solid defense, something that has eluded them so far. The 7-3 squads will kick off on Saturday at 1:40 p.m. on Senior Day — the last home game of the season — at Bobcat Stadium.
“This is going to be a huge game,” Ash declared.