After zeroing in on a Cal Poly receiver and sprinting to meet him, Jeffrey Manning Jr. laid a hit the moment a pass arrived.
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With a mix of potent offense and stifling defense, Montana State prevailed again.
Before this football season began, it looked like Montana State would follow a tough season opener with five relatively easy games. That’s exactly how it’s played out. The Bobcats nearly won their opener but lost 19-16 at Wyoming. They won their next four games by 106 total points (26.5 per game). That number increased to 144 after MSU’s 45-7 win over Cal Poly (1-5, 0-3 Big Sky) on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium. The 10th-ranked Bobcats (5-1, 3-0) are in great shape entering the meat of their conference schedule. “We’re a pretty unified team,” MSU head coach Brent Vigen said. “We certainly didn’t go down to Laramie (Wyoming) thinking we were going to lose that game, but we bounced back.” Last month, MSU safety Jeffrey Manning Jr. said there would be “fireworks” when fellow defensive back Tyrel Thomas returned to the field this season. He made that prediction look prophetic late in the first quarter Saturday. Cal Poly quarterback Jaden Jones completed a pass over the middle to Evan Burkhart, but Manning hit him hard and knocked the ball out of his hands. Thomas grabbed the floating ball and returned it eight yards to Cal Poly’s 20-yard line. It was initially ruled a fumble but changed to an interception, Thomas’ first since Dec. 13, 2019 against Austin Peay in the FCS quarterfinals. “It was just exciting to have Tyrel out there, and I was just telling him, ‘Just let it fly and just do what you do.’ As you see, that’s what Tyrel does on a daily basis,” Manning said. “He was excited because, obviously, that’s a special moment having him finally back out there with us. And shoot, he deserves it. I’m happy for him.” Thomas was active last week against Northern Colorado and the previous game at Portland State but only for emergency use, which did not come up in his coaches’ eyes. The senior was the starting nickelback on the pre-fall camp depth chart but played at cornerback on Saturday. He was in for Eric Zambrano when he made the interception. “Tyrel’s one of our better competitors,” Vigen said. “Getting him healthy took a little bit longer than we may have hoped, but good to have him back out there making plays.” Thomas’ pick led to a 7-yard touchdown run from Isaiah Ifanse on the first play of the second quarter. That kicked off one of MSU’s best quarters of the season. Ifanse scored two more TDs in the first half, on a 1-yard run and a 12-yard pass from Matthew McKay. Butte’s Tommy Mellott also rushed for a score on a 74-yard QB keeper. It was the freshman’s first TD of his MSU career. “Tommy Mellott’s one of our better playmakers, and we’ll continue to find ways to get him involved,” Vigen said. Manning intercepted a pass at the 8:55 mark of the second that led to Ifanse’s 1-yard score. The 28-0 second quarter was MSU’s most lopsided quarter of the season, and it matched the Bobcats’ biggest halftime margin of the season. They also led 35-0 in their 52-10 home win on Sept. 18 over San Diego, the only team Cal Poly has defeated this season (by a score of 28-17). MSU outgained Cal Poly 209-40 in the second quarter after an even first quarter yardage-wise (91-89 in the Mustangs’ favor). The lone first quarter score on Saturday came on a 9-yard pass from McKay to tight end Treyton Pickering, a Sunburst native. Callahan O’Reilly made a basically perfect game a little better with a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the third quarter to put the Bobcats ahead 42-0. It was his second interception and first pick-six of his season and career. “Obviously any time you touch the ball, you want to score, so that’s definitely better than the last one,” O’Reilly said, referring to his INT against Northern Colorado last week. “We preached takeaways all week at practice, so to get out there and get one always feels good.” The redshirt junior linebacker from Bozeman joined Troy Andersen and Ty Okada (both against San Diego) as Bobcats who have taken interceptions to the house this season. McKay completed 14 of 18 passes for 163 yards and two TDs. Ifanse rushed for 59 yards on 13 carries and caught two passes for 22 yards. Pickering made four receptions for 23 yards, and Bozeman’s Lance McCutcheon led the Bobcats with 57 yards on three catches, including a 40-yarder that happened two plays before Ifanse’s 1-yard TD. Tre Webb led the Bobcats with seven tackles, and Chase Benson had their lone sack. Kalispell’s Tadan Gilman grabbed MSU’s fourth interception of the game in the fourth quarter, giving MSU a 4-0 turnover margin in the game. The Bobcats now have a 11-1 interception advantage on the season, and they’ve outgained their opponents by nearly 200 yards per game (461.3-270.7). MSU would love for the dominance to continue, and the team is confident it can continue its winning ways. But the Bobcats are entering their most testing stretch since 2019 (they skipped last season because of the coronavirus pandemic). MSU will play at No. 19 Weber State on Friday night. The Bobcats are not only embarking on a short week on the road against a ranked team, but they’re preparing for a team that was on a bye this week. Home games against unranked Idaho State and Idaho are sandwiched by the Weber State game and road matchups with No. 4 Eastern Washington and No. 6 Montana. MSU’s season will be defined by its performance from Oct. 15 to Nov. 20. “It’s going to come a point in time where we’re in a slugfest,” Vigen said. “We’ve got to be able, offensively, to count on Matt to make plays. But he’s got to understand that we’ve got a lot of good players, too, so it’s not just all about him, and I think he gets that.” The Bobcats were a play or two away from beating a solid FBS team on the road in their first game since December 2019. They’ve covered the spread in every game, Wyoming included, with the only close call being a 30-17 road victory over Portland State. In other words, MSU did what good teams are supposed to do. Soon, the Bobcats will get to show how good they truly are. “This is a big win for our confidence,” Manning said. “We have that quick turnaround, so I think we’re more so just ready to prepare, get back out there and just, Friday, let it fly.”
Repeatedly, Jeffrey Manning Jr. was told of a recruit who would be visiting campus. He never heard a name, but he assumed the potential newcomer was talented.
Tyrel Thomas ran around and defended similarly to how he has for the past five years at Montana State’s practice Monday. His No. 0 jersey is a welcomed sight for the Bobcats.
Manning had played for Oregon State through 2019, but he believed it was time for him to step away. He went to middle school with MSU defensive back Tyrel Thomas, and being a free safety, he dreamed of playing alongside him.