As fans flung gold shirts his way, Willie Patterson bounced up on his feet, gathered himself and backflipped, prompting more yellow to be thrown on the Bobcat Stadium turf.
The Montana State wide receiver had scored not just his first but his second career touchdown on the day. Matthew McKay faked a handoff and threw to him immediately for a 31-yard score. And in MSU’s first home game in more than a year, Patterson was elated to have the performance he did.
Bobcat fans were too. After a long hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, they were witnessing MSU football in person at long last. They tossed their Gold Rush shirts into the end zone and Patterson showcased his athleticism with a backflip, though a flag was thrown for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The penalty, though, was inconsequential. All that mattered on this day was the Bobcats were back home. And No. 11-ranked MSU took care of business to the tune of 45-7 over Drake during the Bobcats’ annual Gold Rush game Saturday before 19,797 fans.
“Obviously we heard a lot about the atmosphere, but to live it, to breathe it, to be within it, it was awesome,” Bobcat head coach Brent Vigen said. “I hope that’s just the beginning for us this year, and I hope we pack the stadium every time out.”
When previous head coach Jeff Choate departed to become a co-defensive coordinator at Texas last winter, a concern about the program followed. But with a near upset against his former team at Wyoming and a decisive home-opening Gold Rush win, Vigen has given reason for pessimism to subside.
Dispersed around Bozeman, Bobcat fans donned gear radiating gold, highlighting the city with the color of its team. Hours before kickoff, fans decked out in gold flooded the streets near the stadium, shuffling around the tailgates. Kids with gold shirts tossed footballs, pretending to be like their favorite Bobcats, some of whom did the same years ago.
For one year, eight months and 29 days the stands were still. The field, unscathed. The stadium, silent.
“Amazing,” MSU defensive end Daniel Hardy said. “This Gold Rush game, that first home game, especially this year, we’ve all talked about it, but I don’t think we can stress enough how much anticipation was around this game.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve played in front of our fans. … Kind of gave them a little reward for still having faith in us and still showing up for the Bobcats. Love them.”
MSU mascot Champ strutted while leading a brigade of cheerleaders and band members. And in their wake, players who thousands of people gathered to watch play trailed behind.
Everyone around them was ecstatic. The Bobcats, though, were stoic. They had long awaited this moment. Eager to perform in front of their supporters, yet unabated by the distractions now swirling.
And just like so many Gold Rush night games before, the sunset splashed against the Bridgers, visible now as smoke in the area had subsided. Like the mercurial cloud of uncertainty the Bobcats faced for more than 600 days, everything was clear. This night was reserved for football for those on the turf and for cheering for those off of it.
Faithful were bedlam for the starting lineup, then silent when a giant American flag was spread across the field to honor the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, then raucous again following the National Anthem.
When the Bobcats, their country and state’s flags in hand, stormed out of the new Bobcat Athletic Complex behind members of the national-champion rodeo team on horseback, it was time to play.
“I’m going down there to wreck something,” Hardy recalled thinking from the opening kickoff. “It was like running through a brick wall. Love (the fans). They do an amazing job of feeding us with energy. Couldn’t ask for a better home crowd.”
The anticipation matched the beginning of the game. In three drives, the Bobcats totaled just 31 yards and went three and out twice. Once any jitters were put aside, the Bobcats scored 24 unanswered points.
The Bobcats’ defense was stellar from the onset. Hardy finally could illustrate why his move from outside linebacker was worth it, as he was often in the backfield and forced multiple third-down passes to fall incomplete. The Bobcats allowed 228 yards to MSU’s 435.
“The energy is always there from our fans. Gold Rush heightens that,” MSU safety Ty Okada said. “To see that support, it fuels us for sure, especially as a defense when you hear the noise, you can see the offense panicking a little bit and not being able to communicate as well. I just love it.”
MSU’s offense often faced short fields because of it. After recovering a muffed punt, the Bobcats set up Blake Glessner with a 29-yard field goal. At the conclusion of the first quarter, McKay darted a pass to Patterson on the perimeter, and Patterson did the rest as he eluded defenders and dove for a 23-yard touchdown.
Drake’s following possession was stifled by MSU, as Hardy forced a pass by Ian Corwin to go off target. Only a few minutes later, McKay found Patterson again for his second touchdown, which led to his flip before ecstatic fans.
“Our mentality as an offense,” MSU wide receiver Lance McCutcheon, who finished the game with 121 yards on seven catches, “is to go out there and put points on the board every possession, every drive.”
The Bobcats (1-1) were wearing down the Bulldogs (1-1). Later in the second quarter, the Bobcats compiled a nine-play, 68-yard drive over the course of four minutes, 16 seconds. It ended with a 4-yard touchdown run by Isaiah Ifanse with less than three minutes before intermission, his first of two TDs on the day.
Drake put together a scoring drive of its own, concluding with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Corwin to Cross Robinson just before halftime. But by then, it was too late. The Bobcats were already on their way to victory.
“We came out with the same mentality,” Hardy said of MSU’s response after losing to Wyoming last week. “We could be playing Alabama or whoever it is, but we’re going to come out with the same mentality. We want to win. We want to punch them in the mouth early.”
After intermission, McKay threw a deep pass to McCutcheon, who caught it and ran the rest of the way to the end zone. McCutcheon raised his hands up to the adoration of MSU students in the south side of the stadium.
“We were anticipating this, but going out there and seeing the fans and the gold and just the environment was insane,” McCutcheon said. “It was a great Gold Rush for not playing in two years.”
McCutcheon, who’s from Bozeman, had been looking forward to a moment like this. Another gold shirt was thrown his way from the stands, prompting a warning from the game’s announcer. But no penalty was issued this time. As fans leaped and yelled, McCutcheon greeted teammates to enjoy the occasion — one many at Bobcat Stadium had been yearning for.
It, in many ways, was a moment of victory.
“I heard a lot about it going back to February, and it lived up to expectations,” Vigen said about the energy of the day. “I hope we can match the electricity that was in this stadium for weeks to come. We just don’t have the gold jerseys on, but we can still have this type of crowd no matter what, can’t we?”