Sixty minutes of bitterly-contested football that culminating in a play decided by the slimmest possible margin might be difficult to summarize for some, but Montana State quarterback Sean Chambers got to the heart of the topic.
“Heartbreaking,” he said after the Bobcats dropped a 20-16 decision at No. 1 and defending National Champion South Dakota State on Saturday night. The game concluded with Chambers narrowly missing on two passes into the Jackrabbits end zone as time expired.
“We anticipated a four-quarter game,” said Bobcat head coach Brent Vigen. “We knew we’d have to play our tails off, and I think we did that. Our guys played hard and made plays on both sides of the ball. We just didn’t make enough.”
Third-ranked Montana State controlled the game’s first two quarters, but SDSU gained the upper hand after the intermission. Still, one of the most-anticipated showdowns on the FCS calendar stood at a stalemate, tied 13-13, with after a Brendan Hall field goal with 10:15 to play.
Plenty happened from that point on. The Cats forced a three-and-out, then MSU marched to the Jackrabbits two-yard line. A penalty pushed the team back to the seven, and Hall’s field goal gave MSU a 16-13 lead with 2:04 to play.
SDSU responded. On first-and-10, Mark Gronowski found Grahm Goering on a 40-yard pass. On the next play a Gronowski screen to Griffin Wilde resulted in a 35-yard touchdown.
“Two big plays,” Vigen said. “They beat us in man coverage on a heck of a pass and a heck of a catch. Then we didn’t tackle on a screen.”
Trailing 20-16, Chambers led the Bobcats back. He found Derryk Snell for 19 yards, and again for 13, and then scrambled for a 13-yard gain. Then Chambers connected with Treyton Pickering on a 21-yard completion, giving MSU a 19-yard field for the win.
First, though, a false start pushed the team to the 24. On first-and-15, Chambers fired a pass to the back of the end zone. Clevan Thomas Jr. made the catch, the nearest official threw his hands in the air, and the clock read 0:00. Review, however, overturned the play to essentially end the game. One last pass fell incomplete.
“All the guys played their hearts out,” said junior linebacker Danny Uluilakepa said. “That’s what I feel bad about.”
Tommy Mellott completed all six of his passes for 34 yards, and rushed for 46 yards, but left the game in the second half with an injury. Pressed into full-time action, Chambers rushed for 90 yards and threw for 53 more.
South Dakota State finished with 341 yards, MSU 298. The Cats rushed for 211, led by Chambers, along with Julius Davis’ 57 yards.
After Montana State dominated the game’s first 30 minutes, South Dakota State flipped the script by using the same method that staked MSU a 10-0 halftime lead. The Jackrabbits gained 155 yards in the third quarter while holding the Cats to 18. That vaulted the top-ranked Jackrabbits to a xx-xx win over No. 3 MSU in Brookings on Saturday night.
MSU controlled the Jackrabbits offense in the first half with a staunch defense, and controlled the clock with a steady ground game. The Cats held No. 1 South Dakota State to 91 yards before the intermission, 3.6 yards per the team’s 25 plays. The Jackrabbits rushed for 40 yards.
The Cats held the ball for two-thirds of the first half, gaining 118 yards on the ground. While MSU didn’t gain 10 yards on any rushing play, the team averaged 4.8 yards per attempt and wasn’t stopped for a negative play.
The half turned on a negative play MSU’s defense inflicted on the Jackrabbits. On the sixth play of SDSU’s opening drive, Danny Uluilakepa chased South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski behind the line of scrimmage toward the Bobcat sideline. Uluilakepa clipped Gronowski’s leg, altering his stride, and the Walter Payton Trophy candidate’s knee grazed the ball and knocked it loose. Nolan Askelson pounced on it at the Bobcat 43.
The first half’s only touchdown ensued. Tommy Mellott gained eight yards and Julius Davis four, followed by a nine-yard pass from Mellott to Davis. Davis ran for six more to give Montana State a first-and-10 from the 30, then Mellott ran for five and Sean Chambers finished the drive. He ran for three yards, eight yards, three yards, and a three-yard touchdown.
On its next drive, the Bobcats again chewed up yards and clock. MSU moved 47 yards in 12 plays to drain eight minutes, 12 seconds off the clock. Brendan Hall kicked his first field goal as a Bobcat to give Montana State a 10-0 lead it carried into halftime. The last time SDSU was scoreless at halftime was October 3, 2015, at the hands of North Dakota State.
Despite the bitter ending, Vigen knows that plenty of season remains. “We can’t change the outcome,” he said. We’ve got to move on. We’ll get back to work on Monday.”