After Montana State had lost for the second time in a row, this time on a blocked punt that led to a touchdown against North Dakota, Troy Andersen was quick when answering questions following the game.
Was the team more urgent now? The linebacker and quarterback had one word in mind.
The No. 12-ranked Bobcats showed it in their next game. They scored 42 points in the first half, tied for fifth most in program history, as they trounced Southern Utah by 35 points last weekend.
The victory prevented a two-game losing skid from becoming three and set the Bobcats up for their most important month of the season.
MSU is 8-3 in November since head coach Jeff Choate took over before the 2016 season. The Bobcats have also won their last five games in this time of year.
MSU defensive lineman Derek Marks said the UND loss forced his team to become motivated. After that loss, they didn’t have more room for error.
“It forces you to kind of look in the mirror a little more and figure out what’s going on, what needs to change,” Marks said. “It’s humbling, and it’s humbling in a good way to be forced to do that. … I think a lot of mistakes get kind of hidden when you’re winning. I think when you lose, those mistakes are maximized.”
MSU running back Logan Jones has thought hard about why MSU plays better late in seasons. Following a 4-4 start to the 2018 season, the Bobcats went 4-0 last November including their win at Montana and over Incarnate Word in the FCS playoffs.
Jones believes it’s because of their supplemental effort after workouts already assigned to them. For example, after lifting weights this summer, players wanted to dedicate more time toward improvement. So they lined up and ran sprints.
“Two extra for the Griz,” Jones remembers his teammates saying. “A couple extra for the Big Sky championship.”
Jones isn’t unfit. But those post-workout workouts, like extra ab exercises, had him burning. That, he said, made the Bobcats mentally stronger for situations like recovering after the UND loss.
“We stay, we keep working at something, and we don’t really flinch,” Jones said. “We’ve always been a second-half team in a sense, but that’s because we’ve always taken another couple steps after we’re supposed to be done. We’ve just kept working and working, and we don’t mind that.”
The Bobcats felt they should’ve won the UND game, MSU safety Jahque Alleyne said. He added the Bobcats didn’t execute on several assignments as well as they should’ve.
But they knew all they could do was move on. They had other games and opponents, like Southern Utah, to play.
“I think things are a lot more urgent,” Alleyne said. “We definitely hold ourselves to a higher standard than last year.”
Choate has emphasized publicly and to his players the importance of remaining focused on details and specifically what the Bobcats can control. That, he said, is the most key aspect of playing well in November.
In fact, before the Southern Utah game, Choate claimed he didn’t know his team was ranked in the top 25. He can’t control it, so he doesn’t worry about it.
“I really don’t listen to outside noise,” he said. “You just can’t. I just cannot imagine what my life would be like, how miserable I would be, and conversely how quickly you would lose track of reality and focus if you listen to the good things said about you during a good week.”
Choate often refers to the 24-hour rule. MSU guard Lewis Kidd invoked it following his team’s loss to UND.
The Bobcats just had a day’s time to let the gut-wrenching emotions sink in. Choate admitted the feelings of regret may have hung around a little longer. But the point was to keep the focus ahead.
The Bobcats showed they were fine immediately last Saturday. They totaled 269 yards of offense and held Southern Utah to 106.
But again, the 24-hour rule stood. Even following the win, Jones noticed during this week’s practices that the urgency hasn’t left.
“We all have a different edge,” Jones said. “Choate’s out there, yelling a little more and all that stuff. We’ve got to win out again.”