DAVIS, California — Kevin Kassis took a deep breath and a few moments.
The Montana State wide receiver was asked how team had just won. The No. 10-ranked Bobcats had scored 13 points in the fourth quarter on the way to a 27-17 win at UC Davis on Saturday.
Kassis pointed to MSU’s execution. Now, that’s often a blanket term for athletes and coaches when talking to media, a way of saying something without actually saying much of anything.
But Kassis is right. Despite mistakes, mishaps and bad decisions, the Bobcats made the important plays in crucial situations. And that’s why they’re playing their best when it matters most.
“Rose up at the most opportune times,” MSU head coach Jeff Choate said.
Kassis’ answer, though, wasn’t so simple. The Bobcats earned a road win against a preseason favorite to win the Big Sky for several reasons.
It happened because Kassis beat Devon King, a UC Davis cornerback who was the conference’s defensive player of the previous week, in multiple man-to-man situations. It happened because key offensive weapons like Travis Jonsen, Troy Andersen and Isaiah Ifanse played like the dangerous threats they are when healthy. It happened because the Bobcats’ defense didn’t allow all-American quarterback Jake Maier to throw a touchdown pass and were lights out in the red zone as well as third and fourth downs.
“It’s definitely coming together,” Jonsen said.
The Bobcats weren’t perfect on Saturday. They haven’t been all season. Look no further than when they unconscionably completed a pass to Kassis deep into UC Davis territory with just a few seconds remaining in the second quarter. Instead of spiking the ball to preserve that precious time, they tried to hustle the field goal team out right away but didn’t get the snap off before the first half expired.
Maier still completed passes to 10 different receivers and finished with 273 yards. UC Davis running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. was on fire for most of the night against MSU’s top-notch defensive front. And the MSU offense sputtered midway through.
But the Bobcats were resilient and made the right plays at the right time. MSU’s defense allowed the Aggies to convert just 2 of 17 third and fourth downs. That would kill the momentum for any offense, including UC Davis’.
The Bobcats allowed the Aggies to score on just three of its five red zone trips. MSU defensive lineman Jason Scrempos blocked a field goal that would’ve kept it a one-possession game even in the very end. Brayden Konkol made a great defensive read and intercepted Maier when the Aggies needed more points midway through the game. And even without getting much pressure on Maier, which MSU players were saying was key throughout the week leading up to it, the Bobcats rarely allowed explosive plays.
“They execute every week, and they hung tough,” Kassis said. “You could see how they execute around the ball. Our defense doesn’t break.”
The Bobcats didn’t back down when UC Davis and its explosive offense took the lead in the third quarter. Tucker Rovig made short, intermediate and deep throws accurately and gave his receivers chances to make plays instead of overthrowing them as he has. Jonsen impacted the game in the way he’s accustomed to with a 75-yard touchdown run and another 61 receiving yards. Kassis finished with a career-high 135 receiving yards. Ifanse provided 77 key yards as he finally looks like he’s ready to contribute to the offense again after recovering from injury.
“We just felt that if we could move the ball and establish the run, we felt we could hit them over the top a couple times,” Kassis said, “and kudos to our O-line too.”
After two consecutive losses to Sacramento State and North Dakota, the Bobcats went from hopeful for a Big Sky championship and a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs to simply hopeful for a playoff berth. But they’ve won three games since then, and Choate is 10-3 in November in his four-year tenure at MSU.
The Bobcats have been ready to perform in key moments. And now they are back in contention of that first-round bye.
“We’re constantly working to get better,” Scrempos said. “We always know we can constantly improve.”
Kassis said those back-to-back losses were learning experiences. It showed his team how it needed to adjust for the final stretch of the regular season.
And he’s happy those games happened early. Because now the Bobcats are riding momentum on their collision course into this week’s contest against rival Montana.
Jonsen said the Bobcats will re-examine their flaws Sunday and begin focusing on that showdown. They’ve remained intent on improving, and they’ve won accordingly.
“You can see we’re cruising right now,” Kassis said. “We’re doing well right now, and we want to keep that going.”