The first time the state of Montana played Wyoming football was in 1919 at Casper High School, according to MSU’s sports information service. The Bobcats did not play in 1918 due to a pandemic.
A little over a century later, MSU is reopening a season against Wyoming after missing the previous one due to a pandemic. Brent Vigen is in his first year as MSU head coach after spending the previous seven years as Wyoming’s offensive coordinator.
It’s a pretty symmetrical match, but it’s not history repeating itself. The world faced an influenza epidemic in 1918, 101 years before COVID-19 arrived. World War I also contributed to this canceled MSU season, while the 2020 season was canceled purely because of the coronavirus and by choice. This year’s Wyoming game, scheduled to start Saturday at 2 p.m., will be played at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, about 150 miles south of Casper.
Vigen insisted that he and his team are focusing on the Wyoming Xs and Bones, not one of those historical ties. It’s easy to find interesting storylines confined to the field.
Here are five things to watch out for when MSU, ranked No.12 in the FCS Stats Perform preseason poll, faces a tough foe on FBS on Saturday afternoon.
1. Rest against rust
Despite the pandemic, most college football teams played some sort of season in fall 2020 or spring 2021. Wyoming was one of them, dropping 2-4 last fall.
MSU hasn’t faced another team since December 21, 2019, when it lost 42-14 to North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals.
Saturday will show how the long layoff affected the Bobcats. Maybe they’ll play with more energy and speed because they were hungry to get back on the pitch and because they were able to limit hard contact more than the other teams. Maybe they’ll look sluggish, both physically and mentally, as they readjust to the speed of the game. Maybe there will be a mix of the two, and MSU’s performance won’t. will not be different from those of a normal season.
There aren’t many examples of teams that have taken a season off, so it’s hard for the Bobcats to know what to expect. They hope their rest, talent, experience and transfers that played out last season will undo any rust.
2. The beginnings of Matthew McKay
Three players from MSU’s roster have started games as the Bobcats quarterback, and none of them will start Saturday’s game.
Troy Andersen became linebacker in 2019 after a season devoted entirely to Big Sky at QB the year before. Casey Bauman started the 2019 season as a starting caller, but was replaced after three games by Tucker Rovig, who started the last 12 games.
Bauman is chain three and Rovig is the save on MSU’s 2021 opening depth chart. The start will be Matthew McKay, a junior redshirt who transferred from North Carolina State in 2020. He will be MSU’s sixth starting quarterback in as many seasons.
Few QBs can run as well as Andersen (1,412 rushing yards and 21 TDs on 206 attempts in 2018), but McKay is a dangerous scrambler. McKay’s arm might not be as strong as Bauman’s, but it’s not weak. Rovig may be more precise, but McKay at least provided some precision flashes.
McKay threw just 156 assists in 11 total games during his two seasons without a red shirt at NC State. He’s definitely talented, and he’s been praised for his work ethic. Saturday will be McKay’s first chance to show if his promise translates into success as a starter.
3. The return of Troy Andersen
Andersen missed the end of the 2019 season with a knee injury that required surgery and would have forced him to miss last season if the Bobcats had played one. Now he is in good health and hopes to end his legendary MSU career with another great season.
Andersen is unlikely to get many, if any, offensive reps this fall, despite MSU’s quarterbacks struggling and / or running out of time. His coaches don’t want to overload “the focal point” of their defense, as MSU defensive coordinator Freddie Banks has described it.
The Wyoming game will show whether Andersen is as healthy as he and his coaches claim. Even if he is, the former Dillon star might not play at his 2019 level as he gets to grips with the playing action. He’s also playing a new position, moving on to linebacker “Mike” ( or middle) in MSU’s 4-2-5 defense after playing away in a 3-4 pattern two years ago.
Andersen deserves the benefit of the doubt after what he did from 2017 to 2019. He also hasn’t come back from a long injury absence in those years, so the uncertainty is warranted.
4. Defense against MSU’s race
Wyoming starts All-Mountain West running back Xazavian Valladay and mobile quarterback Sean Chambers behind an experienced offensive line, arguably the Cowboys’ greatest strength.
The Bobcats have a solid forward six led by Andersen, linebacker Callahan O’Reilly (a Bozeman graduate), nose tackle Chase Benson (a Helena graduate) and defensive end Amandre Williams. If MSU’s linemen and linebackers are good enough to thwart Wyoming, that’s another story.
MSU also has an inexperienced secondary, exacerbated by the absence of injured nickelback Tyrel Thomas. Banks and Vigen praised the tackling ability of their defensive backs, and that will be important if / when the Wyoming runners overtake MSU’s top six.
5. MSU rotations
“Our goal is to play, consistently, 18 guys on defense,” Banks told 406mtsports.com on Monday.
This means the Bobcats plan to play seven defensive players other than their starters. It’s a testament to their depth and a reflection of their coaches’ desire to keep players fresh. A rested backup is often more effective than a tired starter.
Justus Perkins won the starting center post against Cole Sain, but Sain fell to second in part due to injury, Vigen said, so he might see some snaps on Saturday. Starting right keeper Taylor Tuiasosopo is also listed as TJ Session’s back-up right tackle, indicating a possible plan to move offensive linemen against the Cowboys.
Isaiah Ifanse is clearly the No. 1 running back, but dynamic rookie Elijah Elliott will likely see the pitch often, and some reps could go to third stringer Lane Sumner, a red-shirted sophomore from the Huntley Project.
Backup tight end Ryan Davis, a Billings Skyview graduate, could spell starter Derryk Snell throughout the game or appear on the pitch at the same time as Snell.
The wide receiver is a high substitution position for many teams. It remains to be seen how deep MSU reaches its receiver depth chart.