Montana State, the No. 8 seed in the FCS playoffs, raced away from UT Martin in the second half on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
The Bobcats (10-2) earned a 26-7 win to advance to the FCS quarterfinals next week at top-seeded Sam Houston. UT Martin’s season ended with a final record of 10-3.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
Isaiah Ifanse back to normal
Bobcats head coach Brent Vigen said running back Isaiah Ifanse was not “exactly full speed” two weeks ago against Montana when he carried 19 times for 50 yards. But the junior looked to be back to full health against the Skyhawks, rushing for 176 yards on 28 carries.
“That’s the type of workhorse we need him to be,” Vigen said. “He just looked more like himself. Against Montana, he was a little bit off, and he looked strong today.”
His efforts, combined with those of quarterback Tommy Mellott, helped Montana State rack up 387 yards rushing, a playoff team record. UT Martin had allowed an average of 128.7 yards on the ground entering Saturday. Mellott carried the ball 23 times for 180 yards.
Even before his touchdown rush in the fourth quarter, Ifanse’s presence was crucial. Mellott didn’t pass particularly effectively, and Ifanse provided a change of pace from the quarterback’s runs. Ifanse carried 12 times for 78 yards in the first half, while Mellott had 84 yards on 16 tries.
MSU earning a seed in the playoffs allowed Ifanse two weeks to recover from a leg injury. Vigen said that extra time to rest and prepare contributed to his workload and effectiveness.
Ifanse looked comfortable running the ball, not shying away from contact and consistently pushing forward once a defender found him.
Ifanse went over 100 yards for the day in the third quarter, the eighth time this season he’s surpassed that figure and the 15th time in his career. His 17-yard score in the final quarter put a bow on MSU’s win and was his ninth rushing touchdown of the season and 24th of his career.
Lane Sumner carried four times for 30 yards as Ifanse’s primary backup. Elijah Elliott didn’t handle the ball on offense, but he did have one kick return for 24 yards to start the second half.
Windy conditions influence game
With most of Central Montana under a heavy wind advisory — with winds between 25-30 miles per hour and gusts up to 60 — the weather at Bobcat Stadium played an irrefutable role in the contest.
On a day when Mellott made his first career start — in place of Matthew McKay, who announced during the week his intention to transfer — the quarterback said the weather was just one more thing the team would have to overcome.
“You always want to consider what the weather is going to be,” Mellott said. “I was just checking and checking. I think it’s kind of an indicator of who we are as a team. We’ve faced a lot of adversity, specifically the last two weeks, and this was just one more thing. Ultimately it’s just a great opportunity to grow.”
The flags representing MSU’s national championships, affixed to the top of the north end zone scoreboard, stood up and waved toward the east almost the entire game. The orange flags at the top of the goal posts at times, bizarrely, all pointed toward the middle of the field. The goal posts themselves could even be seen swaying in the strong gusts.
The wind, put shortly, helped dictate how and when coaches chose to deploy their kickers.
On MSU’s first offensive drive, it drove to UT Martin’s 36 and stalled. A field goal would have been measured around 53 yards — within range for kicker Blake Glessner — but it was risky in such dangerous winds. At the same time, a punt might not have done much good and would have been just as risky. Facing fourth and 4, the Bobcats went for it, but Mellott’s pass was incomplete.
On MSU’s second drive, Glessner attempted a 43-yard field goal, but it was blocked.
At the end of the first half, UT Martin’s Tyler Larco attempted a 58-yarder, a kick longer than any Skyhawks head coach Jason Simpson could remember attempting.
The kick was well short. Larco, a redshirt freshman, has a career-long of 47 and a season-long of 42.
Glessner tacked on field goals of 34 and 30 yards in the second and third quarters, respectively, adjusting for the wind each time. In the fourth quarter, he missed an extra point into the wind but made his last one.
“What Blake has been all year is very honest about what his limitation is, what he’s confident in,” Vigen said. “Field goal-wise, it was challenging. For him to get two, we felt good about that. He hated the missed extra point, but Blake’s a competitor. He’s a guy that has high expectations for himself. I thought he handled things really well in just not letting this day intimidate him. I think this day, this wind, could intimidate a lot of kickers.”
Skyhawks QBs largely ineffective
UT Martin quarterback Dresser Winn, starting in place of the injured Keon Howard, had trouble finding a rhythm against MSU’s defensive front.
Winn, a senior, completed 13 of 27 passes for 98 yards. He spread the ball around to six different receivers, but few made any real impact. Winn was sacked twice — once by Amandre Williams and Sebastian Valdez, and a second time by Williams and Daniel Hardy.
In the fourth quarter, Winn nearly had a pass intercepted by Eric Zambrano in the middle of the field and a different pass nearly intercepted along the MSU sideline.
With about five minutes remaining in the game, Winn was replaced by Stewart Howell. He was sacked once by Hardy, threw an interception to Simeon Woodard and went 3-for-4 passing overall for 14 yards.