JoJo Henderson was just where he needed to be.
Northern Colorado quarterback Jacob Knipp scanned the field for an open receiver. He thought he found one and rocketed a throw downfield.
The pass ended up deflected and in Henderson’s hands for his second interception of the season.
After the game, Montana State defenders spoke about how they disguised their coverage to try and confuse Knipp. Now the Bobcats hope they can bewilder one of the best players in the FCS.
The No. 10-ranked Bobcats (7-3, 4-2 Big Sky) will hope to perplex standout UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier as they travel to take on the Aggies (5-3, 3-3) on Saturday in Davis, California.
“This is a complete offense that’s going to be an extreme challenge for us,” MSU head coach Jeff Choate said. “We’re going to have to eliminate some of the explosive run plays they’ve been able to get, and they always have a couple tricks up their sleeve.”
Last week at UNC, Knipp completed 27 of 38 passes for 220 yards. But none of those completions were devastating. The Bobcats credited the mental game they played with Knipp.
The Bobcats lined up in certain defensive formations before the play began in the hopes of leading Knipp into thinking they were playing a corresponding coverage. But as soon as the play started, they ran a different play than Knipp may have expected, usually with a blitz.
It showed in how long Knipp took to throw the ball. As he tried to solve MSU’s defensive puzzle, the Bobcats’ defensive front seven had more time to take Knipp down. They sacked the quarterback twice and often hurried him into check-down throws.
The Bobcats have recently made a concerted effort to tailor their game plans for whoever they’re playing by designing schemes that will deceive them. Accordingly, they’ve intercepted three passes in their last two games.
“I think that game plan really helped us,” Henderson said of last week. “Disguising our coverages and not letting him see a clear picture before the snap.”
UNC ran run-pass option plays, similar to UC Davis. Maier is simply more proficient with them. He’s sixth in the nation with 3,057 passing yards, is tied for sixth with 27 touchdown passes and is 11th with a completion percentage of 66.3.
Choate noted Maier is an accurate passer who can throw when he’s set in the pocket or on the run.
“They’ve got a good thing going, and it starts on offense primarily with No. 15,” Choate said. “This kid is fun to watch.”
MSU linebacker Walker Cozzie also pointed out that Maier is a sound decision maker who’s shown excellent vision and can find open receivers.
Because of that, the Aggies boast six receivers who’ve caught 30 passes or more and have totaled at least 200 yards.
“He’s going to find the matchup he wants, the matchup that favors him and his guys,” Henderson said of Maier. “So that just kind of heightens everyone on the back end that we need to be aware that the ball could come to you at any point. Even if you have your guy covered, he throws guys open a lot. That’s just hard to prepare for and defend.”
Therefore tricking Maier into making bad defensive reads will be key. If the Bobcats can make him believe he’s facing one particular style of defense, like perhaps showing their base man-to-man scheme, he may feel comfortable throwing the ball rather than handing it off.
Then MSU can send linebackers like Troy Andersen on a blitz to give him little time to throw. Or he could drop into coverage and safety Brayden Konkol could be sent to pressure Maier from out of the secondary.
“I think he disguises it really well,” MSU defensive end Bryce Sterk said of Konkol. “Every time there’s a safety blitz called, he’s always in the backfield and looks like he got there scot-free. So he does a good job of disguising that when he does.”
The Aggies also run a fast-paced offense, so Cozzie said the Bobcats will have to hustle in order to cover as much area as possible and create turnovers at every opportunity possible.
The Bobcats may have more opportunities to do so if they mask their defensive plays.
“Mainly what we’ve been trying to do is disguise and show we’re going to be in coverage and then end up blitzing so it catches them off guard,” Cozzie said. “Our disguise has been key to our success.”