Season Preview: Montana State Bobcats
LARAMIE -- Craig Bohl said he bought Brent Vigen a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne when he accepted the head coaching job at Montana State last February.
"I told them to celebrate with this after your first win," Bohl said with a smile. "I just hope it's not against us."
Vigen's return to Laramie after leading the Cowboys' offense for the first seven seasons under Bohl will surely grab plenty of headlines as the Bobcats travel to Laramie Sept. 4 for the season opener.
There were the good times: Josh Allen, Brian Hill, Tanner Gentry and Co. guiding Wyoming to a Mountain West title game appearance in 2016.
There were some bad, too: The Cowboys offense, especially the passing game, scuffling more and more each season in the post-Allen era.
After COVID-19 limited Wyoming to just six games in 2020, and completely wiped out Montana State's entire season, this game is more than just a teacher vs. pupil matchup. The Cowboys have championship aspirations. Vigen is hoping to get off to a fast start in Bozeman.
The reminiscing should come to a halt rather quickly.
"I'm looking forward to it. Brent is a dear friend, and we were together many years," Bohl said. "His father and my father are good friends. We're going to take a picture before the game. Once the game starts, it's a game. There will be some -- I don't know, not agendas -- this is going to have a different feel."
Let's take a look at the matchup:
Who: Montana State at Wyoming
When: Sept. 4, 2021 at 2 p.m. MST
Where: War Memorial Stadium, Laramie, Wyoming
Series: Wyoming leads 13-6
Last meeting: Wyoming won 21-10 in 2003 in Laramie
MSU's returning starters: Offense (8), Defense (5), Special Teams (0)
UW's returning starters: Offense (10), Defense (11), Special Teams (2)
What to watch for when the Bobcats are on offense:
Montana State won 11 games in 2019. It averaged nearly 33 points per game while advancing to quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs. Trey Lance and the North Dakota State Bison brought the Bobcats season to a screeching halt with a 42-14 victory.
After a year off and an entirely new coaching staff, is it realistic to think MSU can produce those type of results in 2021?
It won't be easy.
MSU lost its starting running back, Logan Jones, from that squad. Travis Jonsen and Kevin Kassis, the 'Cats two leading receivers, are long gone, too. Starting quarterback Tucker Rovig is back in the fold. The junior, who started the final 12 games for MSU, threw for 1,969 yards and 15 touchdowns compared to just five interceptions. He also completed better than 60% of his passes.
The only issue with that is Rovig lost his starting gig in the spring to redshirt junior Matthew McKay, a transfer from North Carolina State.
McKay threw for 910 yards and six touchdowns in just six games for the Wolfpack in 2019, including 308 alone against East Carolina. The 6-foot-4, 208-pound signal caller has played in just 11 career games, but has shown he can run a pro-style offense like the one Vigen will attempt to implement in Bozeman.
MSU will be brining an experienced offensive line to Laramie in 24 days. Taylor Tuiasosopo, Lewis Kidd and Zach Redd. Those three have combined for 80 starts. Kidd is a former All-American honorable mention. He and Tuisasosopo have both earned All-Big Sky accolades.
The Bobcats were the best rushing team in the conference in 2019, amassing 3,871 yards on the ground. That's a whopping 258 yards per game. That line also allowed just 14 sacks. That's less than one per outing.
"They didn't rest on their laurels," Vigen told msubobcats.com after the team's fourth practice of the fall Tuesday. "Sometimes when you don't have that guy behind you pushing you that's evident. It's human nature to slow down a little bit, but it doesn't look like those guys did that this summer."
Isaiah Ifanse will likely be the 'Cats catalyst on offense. The junior running back has 1,838 career rushing yards -- 813 in 2019 -- and was named an All-American honorable mention in 2019 despite missing parts of six games. MSU's most experienced pass catcher is Lance McCutcheon. The 6-foot-3, 202-pound senior snagged 13 passes for 197 yards and two scores in 2019.
What to watch for when the Bobcats are on defense:
MSU's 6-foot-4, 235-pound outside linebacker, Troy Andersen, is the real deal.
The All-American racked up 6.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2019. He also added an interception and five pass breakups while earning first-team All-Big Sky honors.
As if all that isn't impressive enough, Andersen has been a two-way player in Bozeman, lining up under center and in the offensive backfield, too. The Dillon, Montana, native is second all-time in school history with 33 rushing touchdowns. He's sixth all-time with 11 100-yard rushing performances. He's also in the top 10 in points (190) and rushing yards (2,263).
He owns the single-season records for rushing touchdowns (21), yards per carry (6.85), 100-yard rushing games (9) and points (128). Andersen was named a first-team All-Big Sky quarterback in 2018. The previous year, he was the conference's Freshman of the Year at running back and linebacker.
After suffering a knee injury in 2019, one that would've kept Andersen out of action had MSU played last fall, Vigen will have the junior focus on playing linebacker this season.
Andersen isn't the only defensive returner who can be a disruptive force for the Bobcats. Senior defensive tackle Chase Benson anchors the interior of the Cat's defensive front at 6-foot-4, 285 pounds. Washington transfer Amandre Williams also brings speed off the edge for MSU. The Bobcats recorded 41 sacks in 2019, third most in the league.
Bobcats' special teams:
This could be interesting.
Not only is the program replacing its starting placekicker, punter and long snapper, Vigen did not hire a special teams coach and will step into that role in 2021.
MSU is placing its faith in freshman punter Bryce Leighton, and Luke Pawlak, a Kent State transfer, and Blake Glessner will battle it out for kicking duties. Tommy Sullivan will handle long-snapping duties for the 'Cats.
Coming off the school's deepest playoff run in 35 years, Athlon Sports ranked MSU No. 8 in the FCS preseason poll.
Vigen has experience up front, in the back field and under center. It's no surprise what he liked to do on offense in Laramie. Expect much of the same in Bozeman. The roster appears to dictate a run-heavy attack in 2021 anyway.
The defense revolves around Andersen, and it should. Think Chad Muma. This guy can make all the plays and will find the football.
Wyoming serves as the Bobcats' lone FBS matchup of the season. It's a huge game for Vigen and Co., but not essential. A mid-October trip to Ogden, Utah to face No. 6 Weber State will go a long way in determining where MSU lands in the standings this fall. The following week, MSU will host Idaho State and former Vigen recruit and Wyoming quarterback, Tyler Vander Waal.
A trip to Eastern Washington and the season finale at in-state rival, Montana, also highlight the 'Cats schedule.
Montana State 2021 schedule:
Sept. 4 @ Wyoming
Sept. 11 vs. Drake
Sept. 18 vs. San Diego
Sept. 25 @ Portland State
Oct. 2 vs. Northern Colorado
Oct. 9 vs. Cal Poly
Oct. 15 @ Weber State
Oct. 23 vs. Idaho State
Nov. 6 @ Eastern Washington
Nov. 13 vs. Idaho
Nov. 20 @ Montana