No. 2 Montana State Rushing Attack, Timely Defense Too Much for No. 3 Sacramento State

A pick-6 and a hurdle highlighted the Bobcats' road Big Sky Victory

By Braden Shaw, Bozeman Daily Chronicle/406mtsports.com
Montana State's Ty McCullouch celebrates his touchdown with Clevan Thomas Jr. (2) against Sacramento State at Hornet Stadium in Sacramento, Calif. | Garrett Becker, Bobcat Creative Services

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Montana State offensive line cleared a path — led by left guard Rush Reimer displacing Sacramento State linebacker Armon Bailey and defensive end DeShawn Lynch — and running back Julius Davis gleefully scampered through.

Sac State safety Cameron Broussard dove for the legs as the next line of defense, and Davis reacted by hurdling the safety. Davis — who was eventually forced out of bounds on the 49-yard run — said he “blacked out” and let his instincts take over.

“I try to eliminate all thinking,” he said. “I feel like when you start thinking at the position of running back, that’s when you kind of become indecisive and then you don’t make the plays and it’s now, I should have done this, I shouldn’t have done that.

“Whereas I just let it happen. I react.”

Davis found the end zone a couple plays later, a fitting bow on his team-leading rushing performance (110 yards and a TD on 12 carries).

In the first of two monumental conference matchups — impacting both Football Championship Subdivision playoff seedings and the Big Sky Conference title race — No. 2 MSU ran away from No. 3 Sacramento State 42-30 Saturday night in a matchup of the defending co-Big Sky champions.

MSU moves to 6-1 (4-0 in conference play) and sits in sole possession of first place in the Big Sky standings.

The Bobcats finished with 448 yards of total offense (328 rushing yards) and relied on a clutch defense. MSU didn’t take the lead until just under four minutes left in the first half, but the Bobcats knew that “if we could keep leaning on them that we could potentially break” the Hornets, MSU head coach Brent Vigen said.

“That was a tremendous effort, and it wasn’t easy. We had to fight through some stuff,” Vigen added. “We weren’t perfect by any means. But I think the forward thinking nature of this crew found a way tonight.”

A massive blow to Montana State’s defense occurred on the opening drive. LB Danny Uluilakepa collided with free safety Dru Polidore near the Sac State sideline, as both attempted to tackle Hornets RB Marcus Fulcher. Uluilakepa was helped to the Sac State medical tent and later walked to the locker room with his left arm in a sling.

After a Sac State punt, MSU quarterback Tommy Mellott was tracked down by LB Brock Mather for an 8-yard sack. The Bobcats answered with a 12-yard catch by wide receiver Ty McCullouch and an 18-yard catch by WR Clevan Thomas Jr.

A holding penalty and a 6-yard loss on a Marqui Johnson run stalled the drive and made MSU settle for a 33-yard field goal attempt. To make matters worse, Brendan Hall missed the kick wide right.

The Hornets got back into a rhythm with chunk plays to WR Anderson Grover and Fulcher. Sac State later took the lead on a nifty reverse play. QB Kaiden Bennett faked the handoff to RB Ezra Moleni before handing it to WR Danny Scudero. The wideout then looped back around on the left side for the 16-yard touchdown run.

Bennett wasn’t quite as fortunate on Sac State’s next drive. Deep in the Hornets’ territory, Bennett threw a pass outside, intended for WR Christian Miller. The problem came when Miller cut inside — a likely miscommunication — and the ball was snatched out of the air by MSU cornerback Jon Johnson. The transfer CB returned the pick-six for a 16-yard TD.

“It was very important,” Johnson said, “because they had most of the energy and we were kind of down. But it was up from there.”

The Sac State QB was nearly picked off again, throwing toward All-American tight end Marshel Martin IV, who was in quadruple coverage. The ball went off the outstretched hands of LB McCade O’Reilly. Moleni followed that with a 17-yard run.

Bennett later overthrew Martin on a third-and-5, and kicker Zach Schreiner missed a 43-yard FG attempt wide right. It was on the same end of the field as Hall’s miss.

MSU finally gained some offensive momentum, starting with a 22-yard scramble by Mellott. Fellow QB Sean Chambers ended the drive with the Bobcats’ first TD, a 21-yard pass to McCullouch off play action. McCullouch showed off his vertical range on the acrobatic catch and the Bobcats took their first lead of the game (14-7).

Two incompletions from Bennett gave the ball back to MSU, and Mellott continued to keep the Bobcats alive. He scrambled for a first down on third-and-11, and later found WR Jacob Trimble for another first down on fourth-and-3. The Bobcats took a timeout with five seconds left in the first half to set up a 50-yard FG attempt.

Hall missed wide right again, but the Hornets were flagged for running into the kicker. Hall missed again from 45 yards after the penalty.

MSU couldn’t capitalize after the break either. The Bobcats received the kickoff out of the half, but a double reverse halted any momentum. Mellott handed it off to RB Jared White, who then flipped it to Chambers. The QB then rolled left and launched a pass downfield, but was picked off by Sac State CB Dillon Juniel. The Hornets took over at their own 29-yard line.

The Bobcats got the ball right back, though, with another interception. This time Miles Jackson — filling in for the injured Level Price Jr. at nickelback — rocked Grover over the middle, popping the ball into the air. It landed right in the arms of strong safety Rylan Ortt for his third interception of the season.

“If there were half picks, you should give a half to Miles for that,” Ortt said, adding, “They’d been hitting us with (those passes over the middle) a lot in the first half, and the ball just tipped up and it’s one of those things where good things happen when you are under the ball.”

Mellott capitalized, adding to the Bobcats’ lead on an 11-yard TD run off play action. Hall added the point after try, and MSU held a 21-7 advantage. Surprisingly, that marked Mellott’s first rushing TD of 2023.

Sac State answered with another rushing TD. RB Elijah Tau-Tolliver burst through the middle of the line, spun out of a diving tackle by Jackson and roared to the end zone for the 53-yard TD. It’s the longest play from scrimmage by the Hornets this season.

Not only that, Sac State squibbed the next kickoff and recovered a fumble by MSU’s Marqui Johnson on the MSU 25-yard line. The ball looked to come out after Johnson was already down on replay, but officials granted the Hornets’ possession on the field.

Vigen said he could’ve challenged the call, but officials told him it was clear on expedited replay that Johnson fumbled.

MSU defensive back Andrew Powdrell was then called for pass interference in the end zone, but the Bobcats forced a 26-yard FG attempt. Schreiner connected this time to cut the lead to 21-17.

That’s an example of MSU’s “sudden change” mindset of defense, an ability to move on from setbacks and make the next play, Vigen said. It helped retain momentum after the fumble, he added, and was a “tremendous job” by the defense.

“We talk about that every single day in the offseason,” Ortt said, “and that’s fighting through adversity, making the right choice when you’re in that moment and not getting down and saying hey, the defense has got to pick the offense up here. The offense has got to pick the defense up here. I think that’s just a culture thing that we got going.”

Mellott added a 9-yard TD run at the start of the fourth quarter. He finished with 105 rushing yards, marking his eighth career 100-plus rushing yard performance.

The Hornets nearly found the end zone themselves on a 40-yard TD pass to WR Jared Gipson that was immediately wiped away by an illegal shift penalty. A few plays later, Bennett ran up the middle for 17 yards and a first down. Tau-Tolliver then capped off the drive with a 10-yard TD run.

Davis took over on the following drive, getting the Bobcats into the red zone with his 49-yard run and eventual TD. Ortt broke up a pass intended for Martin on a fourth-and-7 — with LB Nolan Askelson tackling the TE — to give the ball back to MSU. White then added the dagger — a 12-yard rushing TD.

Bennett also found WR Devin Gandy for a late 7-yard TD catch, and the Hornets failed on the two-point conversion.

The Bobcats didn’t want to give up that last score, Vigen said, but that didn’t tarnish a performance where MSU proved to be the class of the conference.

“I think we were the more physical team tonight and that’s what we aim to be every week,” Vigen added. “But that was a hard team to do that against and super proud of the guys.”

MSU will next play at No. 10 Idaho on Saturday.

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