Cats top Sac State, 20-17

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On a night for history, Cody Kirk made the most important statement.

Montana State’s junior running back hammered Sacramento State’s aggressive defense for 129 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Bobcats to a 20-17 come-from-behind win at Sacramento State on Saturday. Kirk’s big night, combined another stingy effort by the MSU defense, gave DeNarius McGhee the school’s all-time record for wins by a starting quarterback, 27 and counting, and pushed Rob Ash into a tie with Sonny Holland for the school’s win record by a head coach, 47.

But Ash wasn’t concerned about records after the win. “It’s never been about my record as a coach, it’s about seeing these kids rewarded for their hard work,” said Ash, who now holds all or part of the all-time wins mark at three different schools. “Our kids work so hard, and they never quit fighting in a game. We needed all 60 minutes tonight.”

McGhee was efficient on a warm evening in Superior California, completing 14 of his 22 passes without an interception, for 105 yards. But with the game on the line, the Bobcats turned to Kirk.

With MSU trailing 17-13 early in the fourth quarter, Kirk five times for 34 yards to march MSU to the winning touchdown. While Kirk provided the thunder on that drive, Shawn Johnson struck like lightning on one big play, which Ash called “maybe the biggest play on that drive.” With Kirk lined up in a wildcat formation, he took the direct snap and handed to Johnson on an end-around, which gained 30 yards and put the Bobcats at the Sac State 16. Two plays later, Kirk scored.

Montana State’s defense held Sacramento State to 332 total yards, 76 of them on the go-ahead touchdown pass from Garrett Safron to Morris Norrise in the third quarter. The defense was led by linebacker Na’a Moeakiola, who fitted Hornet run gaps all night and helped limit the home team to 82 yards on the ground.

“We knew they were going to run at us,” Moeakiola said, “especially after they had some success (in the third quarter). I just wanted to be aggressive getting into the gaps.” Moeakiola finished with nine tackles, five for a loss, and one sack.

“Na’a was definitely our player of the game on defense,” Ash said. “He was aggressive and played fabulous.”

The first half was an uneven affair, with each team scoring a touchdown and a field goal. The Bobcats struck first, with Cody Kirk rambling in from 15 yards to give MSU a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter. On the ensuing drive, Sacramento State marched 13 plays deep into MSUJ territory, but settled for a 24-yard Edgar Castaneda field goal.

MSU’s next drive ended the same way. The Bobcats moved into Sacramento State territory, settling for a 35-yard Rory Perez field goal. Sacramento State tied the game with a 13-yard pass from Garrett Safron to TJ Knowles with 5:43 remaining before intermission.

The teams posted similar stat lines through two quarters. MSU gained 174 yards on 36 plays, while Sac State’s 32 plays produced 151 yards. DeNarius McGhee was 10-for-14 passing for 80 yards, while Safron was 12-for-20 for 112 yards. Cody Kirk gained 77 rushing yards on 11 carries, while the Hornets rushed for just 39 yards on 12 carries.

The win raises Montana State’s record to 8-1 on the season, 5-1 in Big Sky play. Sacramento State falls to 6-4 overall, 4-3 in the league. MSU hosts Portland State next Saturday at 1:35 pm.

— MSU Sports Information