Montana State Bobcats football 1

Eastern Washington running back Isaiah Lewis (28) is tackled by Montana State defenders Saturday at Roos Field.

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CHENEY, Washington — Months ago, Brent Vigen peered at a room of people he hardly knew. When he was introduced to them as Montana State’s head coach, he laid out a vision of promise.

Qualifying for the FCS playoffs. Appearances in the quarterfinals. Reaching the semifinals. Even for a program which had recently accomplished those feats for the first time in years, to Vigen, it wasn’t enough.

“Winning the national championship is what we have to be all about,” Vigen said in February. “This is just the beginning.”

His clear message is resounding now. No. 4-ranked Montana State told the country what it’s capable of in a 23-20 win over No. 5 Eastern Washington on Saturday at Roos Field.

The Bobcats (8-1, 6-0 Big Sky) stymied the best offense the FCS has to offer. They showcased a remarkably balanced offensive attack. And they notified the nation they are capable of winning the FCS championship.

MSU offensive lineman Lewis Kidd, who’s witnessed his team improve its win total every season since 2016, said he “100%” believed in Vigen when he established his standards last winter.

“It’s just been a matter of time,” Kidd said. “Every year, we get better. Every year, we find something new we can improve on. It just shows on the field every year.”

What a difference a few years can make. Three years ago, MSU hosted the Eagles, who were also ranked No. 5, another season they featured an electric offense. Jeff Choate, the Bobcats head coach at the time, said his team couldn’t afford to make any mistakes if they hoped to win, calling EWU “the class of the league.”

In that game in 2018, the Bobcats were over eager to prove themselves and committed uncharacteristic penalties and turnovers. Nonetheless, the Bobcats’ hope to join the top tier of teams in the country remained.

“You can’t allow setbacks to define you,” Choate said at the time. “That’s part of life, not just football. We’ll move forward from this in a positive way. I think we’re a good football team, and we’ve got some good football ahead of us.”

He was profoundly correct. With the Miracle in Missoula in 2018, the Bobcats advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs. The following year, they reached the national semifinals.

That was likely the maximum potential of those Bobcats teams. Despite turnover and a change at head coach, they have maintained that path to becoming a powerhouse in the FCS.

And Saturday, MSU illustrated it’s not only hoping to make a deep playoff run.

Vigen was North Dakota State’s offensive coordinator when it won three national titles in the early 2010s. He believes playoff runs begin with a team’s performance in November. This sounds quite a bit like Choate, who was notorious for leading the Bobcats to success to close regular seasons.

“Everybody wants to point to the playoffs and say championships are won in December. They’re won in November,” Vigen said. “They’re won as you continue to play better and get better and come out on the right side of games when you’re really tested. I think that’s the biggest thing.

“We need to find a way this week, next week, moving forward, to keep getting better. That’s what ultimately will propel us into whatever we can do down the road.”

For the opening weeks of the season, Eastern Washington’s offense seemed too prolific to stop. All-American quarterback Eric Barriere led the FCS in several statistics, and even against MSU, he flashed why he does.

Barriere threw a touchdown pass to Talolo Limu-Jones down the left sideline late in the first quarter that couldn’t have been more precise from 18 yards out. This gave the Eagles a six-point lead and a threat to the Bobcats’ seven-game winning streak.

But Barriere was pedestrian from there. He completed 21 of 31 passes for two touchdowns and 214 yards, far from his average of 412.

He was constantly under duress by the Bobcats’ front four and rarely found open receivers down the field as he has so often against other teams.

Vigen said the Bobcats didn’t panic when they trailed. Instead, they showed the poise of a team ready to win a title.

“I think you want it to go perfectly, and we have a team that understands if something doesn’t go our way, let’s move on,” Vigen said. “A lot of teams let those plays compound themselves. And then they don’t make the next one. I think that’s what this team for the most part over and over this season has been able to do. Good, bad, whatever the play is, move on to the next one.

“The defense out there trusting each other, trusting guys to do their job, is what we’re all about.”

On the other side of the ball, Isaiah Ifanse and Lance McCutcheon, two of MSU’s greatest offensive weapons, were marvelous.

McCutcheon caught a 67-yard touchdown from Matthew McKay, a play that included a spectacular reception, a spin out of a tackle, and ultimately, pay dirt. He caught five passes for 150 yards, and McKay made improvements from his last few games and ended up with 253 yards on 17-of-30 passing.

McKay said the victory was “definitely” a statement win and it “definitely” tells the rest of the country the Bobcats are contending for an FCS championship.

“A win we all knew we needed to get, and we got it done,” McKay said. “Just take it one week at a time, and that’s all we’ve got to do.”

Ifanse consistently barreled his way forward for considerable chunks of yards. He stiff-armed a defender on his way to the end zone for a 43-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, giving the Bobcats a needed cushion.

And in the end, he delivered MSU 217 yards on 32 carries — a workload Vigen anticipated Ifanse would need to shoulder in order for the Bobcats to win.

MSU sought to be more physical, Vigen said. They succeeded.

“You want to play the best and beat the best,” Kidd said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Bobcats defensive back Ty Okada, when posed with a question about his team making its way to a national title, said his teammates would focus on the present. For now, their most important goal is beating Idaho next week. Then, it’s on to Montana.

That’s the type of mentality a championship-caliber program would have.

“We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” Kidd said. “We have goals out in front of us and we just want to come out every week and try to be the best team we can be, try to get better week to week.

“Obviously every team sets goals and wants to compete nationally, and that’s something we want to do and something we’ve been able to do these past couple years here, but as far as talking about championships and stuff like that, we don’t need the recognition.

“As long as we know and we can come out and have that confidence, that swagger, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who else believes it, because we do.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.

This article originally ran on bozemandailychronicle.com.

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