Throughout his time as Montana State’s head coach, Jeff Choate has repeatedly explained that in crucial situations, he thinks about playmakers rather than plays.
He cares more about who has the ball in his hands than what plays are being run.
And with the game in overtime at Cal Poly this past week, Travis Jonsen took back-to-back-to-back snaps behind center and scored on the third in a walkoff win.
It was a sign of the Bobcats’ trust in Jonsen, and it symbolized the next step in the evolution of MSU’s offense.
“I know fans love to see explosive offense and all that kind of stuff, and that’s sexy and I get it and I think that we have the ability to be explosive,” Choate said. “But I think at the end of the day, in overtime, give the ball to (Jonsen), let him run three plays to score and put an end to it.
“That’s sexy to me.”
Though the Bobcats’ offense continues shifting, No. 6-ranked MSU is 5-1 and has won nine of its last 10 games against FCS opponents dating to last season. Though the Bobcats haven’t developed a reliable down field passing threat since the start of Choate’s four-year tenure, it hasn’t held them back. Though MSU ranks 11th of 13 teams in the Big Sky in passing offense with 164.8 yards per game, Choate doesn’t mind.
He’s solely focused on figuring out what style can give the Bobcats the best chance to win. Whether that means using more traditional pocket passers, incorporating a wildcat style with a wide receiver taking direct snaps or playing someone who was recruited as a linebacker at QB, he’s open to everything.
It’s all part of the morphing style that is now being led most often by quarterback Tucker Rovig and Jonsen taking an increasing number of snaps behind center.
“When you’re snapping the ball directly to the quarterback and letting him run with it, what’s old is new. Everything evolves,” Choate said. “Even though we’re not a triple-option style, I think we make teams defend a lot.”
When Jonsen signed with MSU in December 2017, he was initially brought in to provide competition for former quarterback Chris Murray. Since then, Murray hasn’t played a snap for the Bobcats, Troy Andersen moved to quarterback last preseason and he beat Jonsen out to be the starting signal caller. Jonsen moved to wide receiver and was kept there as Rovig and Casey Bauman competed at QB this year.
Last November, Choate acknowledged figuring out quarterback has been a challenge that’s persisted since he was hired. The position remains a rotation as Choate is adamant that the QB-run game adds a vital element to the offense.
A year ago, Choate described the offense with Andersen at the helm as similar to the “Single Wing,” a nod to a decades old scheme in which the ball is snapped straight to the running back. This year, he described it as a “multiple spread offense” as it differs dramatically depending on whether Rovig or Jonsen is behind center.
“Travis is a freak athlete,” MSU receiver Lance McCutcheon said, “and with someone with his athletic ability, why not?”
In the first three games of the season, Jonsen rushed for 17 yards on seven carries. In the three games since Rovig became the starter, Jonsen has racked up 250 yards on 31 carries.
Against Northern Arizona on Sept. 28, Jonsen rushed 13 times for 105 yards while Rovig completed 11 passes for 106. Jonsen took 17 snaps behind center and kept the ball himself 13 of those times. Andersen took seven snaps, rushed himself on each of those and totaled 45 yards. Rovig took the remaining 60 snaps.
A week later against Cal Poly, Rovig completed 12 passes for 163 yards and he added 16 yards on the ground. Jonsen accounted for 70 of those receiving yards on three catches. He also rushed 11 times for 85 yards and two scores. His combined production at receiver and quarterback just about matched Rovig’s despite not attempting a pass.
“I love it,” Jonsen said. “It just brings (me) back to the quarterback days, going back behind center and doing what I do.”
Before the season, the Bobcats’ coaching staff understood the offensive options at their disposal. But their decision to narrow the quarterback decision to more traditional pocket passers, compared to including Jonsen and Andersen a year ago, was a testament to their desire to stretch the ball down field, Choate said in August.
Depending on the circumstances, they also knew Rovig or Bauman wouldn’t have to single-handedly carry the offense. A number of players could carry the ball behind a powerful offensive line that has excelled run blocking.
MSU offensive coordinator Matt Miller has an idea of how many touches he wants each key playmaker to have entering each game. But if someone has the hot hand, Miller and MSU’s staff believe good coaching means giving that player the ball.
At the moment, it’s Jonsen.
“He’s a huge, important part,” Miller said, “of this whole puzzle of our offense.”