Cats bounce back against Hornets

The Montana State University Bobcats had a lot of doubters over the past week. After a forgettable performance against Northern Arizona the weekend prior, the fans and boosters seemed upset and, for the second time this young season, the Cats’ backs were against the wall. A loss, to what was an inferior Sacramento State team by most accounts — especially at home — would likely put the Bobcats on the outside of the playoff picture. Montana State responded to the pressure with a 35-13 victory on Saturday.

The Cats, as they often do at home, got off to a fast start against the Hornets. Not more than one minute into the first quarter, junior Dakota Prukop hit sophomore Mitchell Herbert on a short check down pass and Herbert did the rest, outrunning the Hornet defenders for the 79-yard touchdown and an early lead. The much-discussed Bobcat defense did much better this week, limiting the Hornets — although drops and missed assignments could also be culprits — to three-and-outs on multiple occasions, including their first drive of the game, allowing the Bobcats to sprint to a 14-0 lead after just five minutes of play.

But, almost inexplicably, things started to shift in the Hornets’ direction. The offense completely stalled out, punting on four straight drives (including three three-and-outs) and the defense began to revert, giving up chunks of yardage to both the run and the pass. Fortunately for MSU, Sac State missed a field goal and settled for a short one, missing their opportunities to take control of the game. The Bobcat offense, going for a fourth-and-two at midfield, sprung junior Gunnar Brekke loose on a big play that led to a touchdown a couple plays after, giving the Cats a 21-10 lead at the half.

“It was mostly a lack of execution, mainly in the backfield,” Prukop said of the slump. He gave credit to the defense for keeping the offense loose. “We had time to figure things out when our defense was getting stops. It keeps us out of that situation when you feel like you have to score every drive, every play.”

The third quarter started off as a snooze-fest, with both offenses looking unable to execute and plenty of missed passes by the quarterbacks. The Hornets added another chipshot, red zone field goal to cut the lead to eight points midway through the third quarter, but lost their starting quarterback to an injury and were able to execute their downfield attacks to the same degree, especially in the crowded red zone. The Bobcat offense managed to get rolling with a couple big plays and one — possibly their best of the season — methodical and long scoring drive to put the game out of Sac State’s reach at 35-13.  

“Maybe we just need to play every game at home,” MSU Head Coach Rob Ash joked after the win. “It takes a little pressure off the offense, knowing we know that if we stall out for a minute, the defense will have our backs, and maybe we can be a more conventional football team from this point forward.”

Prukop passed for 277 yards on 12 of 22 passing and rushed for 69 yards. Junior Chad Newell rushed for 68 and Brekke rushed for 61. The Cats outgained the Hornets in total yardage 511 to 385.Wide receiver Jayshawn Gates (19) runs the ball during the Oct. 10 game against Sacramento State. Photos by Chris Sandison Gunnar Brekke (27) makes a break away run for a huge gain. Quarterback Dakota Prukop (5) runs the ball through Sacramento State's defense. Wide receiver Mitchell Herbert (82) runs the ball off an option play to score a touchdown.
With a must-win home victory locked away, the Cats will have to turn their attention to a resurgent Portland State program for next week. The Vikings have dominated all season, and fresh off a 66-7 victory over FBS North Texas, the Bobcats hit the road facing a high-stakes road game. Montana State played a decent game this week, but must continue to take major steps forward on both sides of the ball if the want to prevent yet another road loss and be dropped to a dark horse in the Big Sky Conference race. The Cats and the Vikings will kick off from PSU at 1:35 p.m. Mountain Time. The game will be nationally televised on ROOT sports.