Trace the history of Bobcat football and you’ll find a slew of a few consistent factors and characters.
From Gary Gustafson, Les Leininger and Bill Kollar to Brad Daws and Mark Fellows, Corey Widmer to Neal Smith, Dane Fletcher to Caleb Schreibeis and Brad Daly, Montana State has always boasted some of the Big Sky Conference’s best defensive linemen.
The Bobcats have almost always been able to run the ball, particularly in the Big Sky era dating back to 1963, and particularly because of homegrown tailbacks and offensive linemen who relished the physicality of a prolific rushing attack.
And Montana State has been home to several exceptional, unforgettable head coaches.
What’s been less common at Montana State has been prolific receivers, at least purely statistically. And so much of that stems from the weather in Bozeman and the most consistent recruiting areas for the Bobcats over the years.
Playing games in November and December in the Gallatin Valley means you have to run the ball. So it’s not entirely surprising that only five MSU wide receivers have surpassed 1,000 yards in a single season.
Then Lance McCutcheon looked at the MSU record book. The Bozeman native grew up following the Bobcats and idolizing certain players on the perimeter. Entering his final run, he decided to make a mark.
About a decade ago, Elvis Akpla capped his stellar career by posting one of the best pass catching seasons ever at MSU. In 2011, the former Oregon track standout flirted with his prodigious potential, catching 63 passes for 1,145 yards and 11 touchdowns in a season in which the Bobcats won their second of three straight Big Sky titles.
Akpla also had an unforgettable catch against Sam Houston State in the playoffs. It just happened to come in a 49-13 loss in the quarterfinals of that year’s FCS playoffs.
The Bobcats hadn’t advanced even that far since 1984. And they didn’t again until 2018, McCutcheon’s sophomore season playing for his hometown team.
The Bozeman product caught 32 passes the first three seasons of his Bobcat career. He was the next in the line of physical, hard-nosed wide receivers from Montana relegated to blocking roles during their MSU careers due to the relatively consistent run-first identity the program has maintained for nearly 60 years.
Growing up, McCutcheon idolized Akpla. McCutcheon couldn’t help but smile when he was told that Akpla had offered congratulations and excitement following MSU’s 42-19 win over Sam Houston in Huntsville, Texas in the quarterfinals of this year’s FCS playoffs.
So the fact that before his senior year, McCutcheon asked Montana State sports information for a look at MSU’s single-season receiving record in order to set his own goals makes this story that much more prophetic and so much more sweet.
The young man who grew up in Bozeman has seized the opportunity that comes with every college football player’s final season, pushing his production to the brink of one of Montana State’s best receiving campaigns ever.
McCutcheon enters his final college game Saturday with 56 catches for 1,015 yards and seven touchdowns during his senior season. With 135 more yards, McCutcheon could overtake Bignell for the single-season receiving mark. He needs eight more catches to get into the Top 10 single-season total in MSU history.
“He catches the ball really well,” MSU first-year head coach Brent Vigen said earlier this season. “Lance has good size and he is strong. He has above average strength for sure and he runs well.”
One more touchdown would tie him with the 2015 season of Mitch Herbert, a senior in 2017 when McCutcheon was a true freshman. That 2015 year, Herbert snared eight touchdowns and finished with 20 for his career.
“MSU is known for running the ball and having really good running backs,” McCutcheon said. “When (0ffensive coordinator Taylor) Housewright and Vigen came in, they didn’t want to get away from that, especially with the running back we have with (All-American junior) Isaiah (Ifanse).”
In MSU’s 31-14 win over South Dakota State to book Saturday’s ticket to the FCS national title game, McCutcheon hauled in five passes for 98 yards, including the game-sealing touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter.
That outing helped him join tight end Joe Bignell (1,149 yards in 1984), Akpla, Ron Bain (1,110 in 1968), Chip Hobbs (1,034 in 1998) and Mike Jefferson (1,023 in 2006) as Bobcats with 1,000-yard seasons in the MSU record book.
“He doesn’t care; whatever I can do and whatever (MSU wide receivers) Coach (Justin) Udy can do to help him improve on every little thing, he’s willing to work,” MSU first-year offensive coordinator Taylor Housewright said. “That’s pretty awesome to see that transformation with him being an older guy and a leader. That wears off on our team. I use him as an example because of the progress he’s made because he’s really into it.”
Along with the Tommy Mellott phenomenon, McCutcheon’s prolific final season joins the likes of running back Isaiah Ifanse’s single-season rushing record and the overall dominance of the MSU defense as the highlights of 2021. And those accomplishments have led the Bobcats to Saturday’s showdown against North Dakota State for the FCS championship. MSU has its first shot at the top spot in the division since 1984 in large part because of McCutcheon’s lofty goal setting and achieving.
“It’s something we have all been working for,” McCutcheon said, describing both MSU’s December run and each Bobcat veteran’s individual yet cumulative peaking. “It seemed like since last year, we have improved every single year and this being my last year and a lot of our last years, we have put in the work and our hard work is about to pay off and we are all excited about this opportunity.”
North Dakota State’s defense has never been one of deception. Instead, the Bison have put an unbreakable priority on discipline and fundamentals.
NDSU will certainly have an answer for Mellott, MSU’s upstart rookie signal caller, in the quarterback run game. The Bison will have a plan to slow down Mellott, Ifanse and whatever other MSU ball carrier the Bobcats employ.
So can McCutcheon get loose? North Dakota State has only lost 10 games during the fall seasons between 2011 and this one. At least six of those triumphs against the juggernaut of the FCS came because the triumphant opposition would hit deep shots over the top in the passing game.
Montana State will try to do the same. And one of college football’s breakout offensive stars will have a say in that pursuit.
“There’s a sense of pride when you play for one of your state schools,” McCutcheon said. “And it’s not just Montana guys. Everyone on this team is hard working and grateful for this opportunity to get a chance to accomplish the goal we’ve had set since January.
“It’s a pretty surreal moment,” McCutcheon continued. “To grow up a Bobcat fan and then see what they accomplish, now you are on the team and we have set ourselves up for an opportunity that hasn’t been accomplished in 37 years, it’s a pretty surreal opportunity when you take a step back.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez, Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.