All but one of the 13 teams in the Big Sky are within two wins of each other. The margin for error is small.
Montana State head coach Jeff Choate hopes his team understands just how urgent it has to be. Every little advantage it can gain through preparation could be the difference between a win or loss. And every victory or defeat could greatly impact MSU’s standings in the FCS.
The No. 9-ranked Bobcats (5-2, 2-1 Big Sky) will play at North Dakota (4-3) at 11 a.m. Saturday in Grand Forks, North Dakota, coming off their first loss in nearly two months.
1. Bye bounceback
Though UND is an FCS independent as it transitions from the Big Sky to the Missouri Valley, this is still a conference counter for MSU.
And Choate wanted the Bobcats to fully comprehend how important this game is. They lost to now No.7-ranked Sacramento State 34-21 a week ago and had a full week during their bye to fix whatever went wrong.
A win over UND would be significant for the Bobcats. They finish the season against unranked Southern Utah and Northern Colorado before playing UC Davis and Montana, which are both ranked. Depending on how those games turn out, beating UND could be the difference between a comfortable position in the FCS playoffs or hoping for a postseason berth.
“This is a huge, huge game for us,” Choate said. “Huge game in terms with how the season sets up, coming off of the bye week, getting the taste out of our mouth from the Sacramento State game.”
2. Defensive mentality
The Bobcats had their share of tweaks to make. For example, Choate discussed pass protection, often a problem against Sac State which tallied four sacks against the Bobcats, with MSU’s running backs.
This week, protection could be key. The Fighting Hawks move often before and after the snap on defense to try and confuse offenses as they blitz about 35% of the time.
That pressure is why Choate said he doesn’t want to be in a position where the Bobcats have to throw often. But the Fighting Hawks are also disciplined and sound tacklers at every level, so explosive plays will be difficult.
Donnell Rodgers, who Choate called an excellent sideline-to-sideline player, leads UND with 74 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss.
“I just like watching this team play defense because they play hard,” Choate said. “You can tell these guys are coached the right way. Great passion for the game.”
3. Knowing the opponent
This is the second time in Choate’s four-year MSU tenure the Bobcats will play at UND. He knows the tough environment the Alerus Center will provide.
And he thinks some other teams haven’t realized that.
The Fighting Hawks haven’t been consistent. They’ve lost at top-ranked North Dakota State 38-7 but have also lost to two unranked teams including 55-20 at Idaho State.
But the Fighting Hawks are undefeated at home, which Choate said is where their weaknesses disappear. They’ve beaten No. 22 UC Davis 38-36 and No. 21 Sam Houston State 27-23 in Grand Forks. They’re also fresh off a 30-26 comeback win at Cal Poly last week.
“They’ve played very, very well at home. They’re almost like a completely different team,” Choate said of UND. “They play fast, confident. They totally feed off that crowd.”
4. Healthy habits
With a week to rest, Choate is hopeful his injured players have recovered.
Some have been involved in recent weeks but have been limited. Troy Andersen and Isaiah Ifanse, MSU’s two leading rushers last season, both played two weeks ago against Sac State but in limited roles. Andersen rushed 10 times for 44 yards and a touchdown while Ifanse entered the game in the second half and had just one carry for no gain.
The health of those two could impact how well the Bobcats rush against UND.
MSU wide receiver Coy Steel also was back against Sac State after missing a week following a hard hit against Northern Arizona. Preseason all-Big Sky cornerback Greg Filer III also played in MSU’s last game for the first time this season.
But some injuries, Choate said, will simply linger. He pointed to Andersen and running back Logan Jones, who’s played through hurt ribs, as examples.
“At this point, there are some guys who are just going to play with what they have,” Choate said. “It’s probably not going to be made a lot better until they get a couple of weeks off at the end of the season.”