Montana State Head Coach Rob Ash led the Bobcats to a 7-5 record in 2008, his second season in Bozeman. Two of those losses were against major conference opponents; a 69-10 drubbing at Kansas State and a much closer 35-23 defeat at Minnesota. We spoke this afternoon about Saturday’s MSU-MSU tilt.
The Only Colors: What’s the draw for you in taking a game against a much larger opponent? When you coached at Drake [a Division I non-scholarship program], a couple of times every year you would play against scholarship teams. Now at Montana State you take on a couple of these heavyweights each season. Why?
Rob Ash: We really enjoy these games. To be very blunt, we get a good paycheck from these games and so that’s where it starts. But from that point there are several other pluses: our guys get a chance to play in venues that they’ve seen on TV and that they’ve dreamed about, so it’s a lifetime dream come true for them. Second, it makes us raise our level—in the summer, in preseason preparation, in offseason preparation. I thought that was important in the old days at Drake: we started working a lot harder when we started playing these games. I also feel I need to challenge the very best players on my team. Several of our guys can play at this level. They’ve developed into those kinds of players, and it’s awesome to give them the chance to do that.
TOC: Is this a marquee game for your guys? Where does it rank compared to your conference rivalries, etc.?
RA: There’s one game on our schedule that nobody’s going to top, that’s our game against Montana. It’s a huge rivalry, something that’s on everybody’s mind all year long. Everyone in the state is either a Bobcat or a Grizzly, and that’s what the whole year is about. Then the conference championship obviously is very important. So to me, this game [against Michigan State] is not one of those headliners that you red-letter and say you’ve got to win. It’s more a question of knowing you’ve got be ready because these guys are Big Ten. If we’re going to play a good game and be representative, we’d better be prepared.
TOC: One of the dangers in a game like this is the chance that a lopsided loss could demoralize a team that might be ready to win most of its games against competition on the same level. How do you guard against that?
RA: I don’t think there’s a downside [to games against BCS opponents], especially if you play them early. I like playing these games right out of the blocks so you get them over with. That way, if you win you have a fabulous start to season—you really make your season, and a lot of things can happen from there. If you play close, it’s a very good confidence builder and team builder. And if you don’t play well, everybody says, ‘Well they were supposed to lose anyway,’ and you just move on. By the time you get to the next week you’ve forgotten about it.
TOC: How about a scouting report for unfamiliar Spartan fans?
RA: Defensively, we’ve got a headline player named Dane Fletcher, a defensive end who’s a candidate on the watch list for the Award, which is awarded to the top defensive player in the country in the FCS [Football Championship Subdivision] division. He’s a great player with a very high motor; he’s a high-energy, active defensive lineman.
Overall, our defensive front seven is pretty strong. But we’ve been riddled with injuries in the secondary, so to me the big question mark in this game is, ‘Can we hold up in the secondary.’ I don’t mean just against the pass, but can we come up and make tackles and get people stopped. We have very little experience there because of the injuries we’ve had.
Offensively, we’ve run the ball well in the first two years I’ve been here. We’ve not passed as well. So we made a commitment to improving the passing game in the offseason. We have both of our quarterbacks [Oregon transfer Cody Kempt and Mark Iddins] back and we have some new receivers. We also have a more finely tuned passing scheme, so we’re hoping to make progress there. This will be a stern test for us, and we’re anxious to see what it looks like.