Montana State is only a few days removed from a 45-10 shellacking at Texas Tech. And the Bobcats only have a few more to prepare for their crucial home opener.
The No. 13-ranked Bobcats will face No. 12 Southeast Missouri at 6 p.m. Saturday at Bobcat Stadium in MSU’s annual Gold Rush game.
MSU head coach Jeff Choate noted Monday how energized his team was while practicing for their home opener. And based on FCS teams MSU scheduled in 2019, a recovery from this game could be vital.
The Bobcats started last season with a 26-23 victory over Western Illinois, a predictably close game but the Bobcats made key plays in the second half to secure the win. That set MSU up for a 2-1 nonconference record. The Bobcats went on to win just enough to earn a playoff bid.
The next two weeks, against SEMO and at Western Illinois, could be key wins or losses on MSU’s resume by season’s end. If the Bobcats win both of those games, they could enter the Big Sky slate — which doesn’t feature powerhouses Eastern Washington and Weber State — at 3-1 with the only loss being to a Power Five opponent.
If they lose both, they might be 1-3 and might have to win six of their last eight contests to make the postseason.
Choate’s said earning a top-eight place in the playoffs and a first-round bye is the next step in the program’s ascension. Beating a ranked team early on, he believes, should make an impression on the playoff selection committee.
But Choate warned his players the Redhawks are likely eyeing a first-round bye as well.
“It shows you where you are,” Choate said of MSU’s nonconference games. “So now it’s about taking our execution to the next level. We’re going to have an opportunity to do that against a very good opponent. … If you don’t test yourself early, you’re going to pay for it late.”
While coaching at Eastern Illinois almost 15 years ago, Choate prepared his players for a game against the Redhawks. Reflecting back, he immediately recognized SEMO’s reputation for toughness.
Choate said that starts with the defense. The Redhawks were best in the FCS last season with 36 takeaways and scored 144 points off of them.
The Redhawks return 10 of 11 starters from 2018, including Buck Buchanan Award winner Zach Hall, who started the season with 19 tackles last week in SEMO’s 44-26 season-opening win over Southern Illinois.
The 6-foot, 238-pound inside linebacker is “extremely” active, aggressive and tough to block, Choate said, considering the intensity with which he hits the line of scrimmage.
“But even more than that, you can tell he’s the emotional leader of that group,” Choate said. “So the energy that he brings, the passion that he plays with, the physicality, the edge, he defines what that defense is about.”
One week after Texas Tech quarterback Alan Bowman threw for 436 yards on MSU, Choate said the Bobcats have another standout QB to face.
Daniel Santacaterina is the fuel of SEMO’s offense, Choate said. In SEMO’s win over Southern Illinois, the senior threw for 248 yards and a touchdown and ran for two more. He completed 59 percent of his passes last year while throwing for 2,844 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Choate noted while watching film of Santacaterina that he can successfully hit his targets on a variety of throws.
“He’s the guy that kind of makes it go. Very tough kid,” Choate said. “You could tell he’s the undisputed leader of that offensive side of the ball. Definitely has some swagger.”
Bozeman’s Ryan Lonergan consistently hauled in impressive catches against MSU’s third and fourth teams during fall camp.
Choate noticed. Lonergan entered the game at tight end against Texas Tech and was commonly on the field.
However, now he now can only play three games the rest of the season or else he can’t be redshirted and this will have to be counted as a year of eligibility.
However, the Bobcats may need him. Linebacker-turned-tight end Jacob Hadley will be out this week due to injury, which moved Lonergan up to second on MSU’s tight end depth chart behind starter Ryan Davis.
Lonergan, defensive back Eric Zambrano, wide receiver Jaden Smith and running backs DeMareus Hosey and Jaharie Martin all entered the game against the Red Raiders.
Choate said he wanted Hosey and Smith to play because of their Texas roots and saw limited action. However, Choate said Martin, who transferred from linebacker to running back during fall camp to add depth to the position, will likely continue to have a role on the team.
But Choate didn’t commit to playing any true freshman more than four games.
“I think that will play out,” he said. “We got four preseason games. I don’t know that we’ll play all those guys in all those games. But we got to figure out where we’re at. So this is part of the process. You got to save something down the stretch because you’re probably going to need them.”