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MSU's McGhee: turnovers not a product of preseason hype
One of Rob Ash’s offseason quotes grew some legs, becoming the golden line of the preseason when the subject came to Montana State University football. Ash told a local news station that sophomore quarterback DeNarius McGhee is so popular in the state of Montana and has such a magnetic personality, he might be able to get elected as mayor of any city in the Treasure State, save Missoula.
While the comment was tongue in cheek, the hype surrounding Montana State’s second-year signal caller was very real. McGhee was named the Big Sky Conference preseason co-Offensive Player of the Year. He was named to various preseason All-America teams. He is on the initial Walter Payton Award watch list, tabbed as one 20 offensive players in America favored to win the FCS’ most prestigious award.
So when McGhee’s second pass attempt of the season was intercepted by University of Utah linebacker Brian Blechen during MSU’s opener in Salt Lake City last Thursday, the question had to be asked: did the hype go to McGhee’s head?
Following the pick, McGhee composed himself, leading MSU on a 79-yard touchdown drive to close the half, capped by a 7-yard touchdown pass to Tanner Bleskin. But McGhee’s numbers weren’t spectacular (16-for-29 for 182 yards) and he threw two interceptions, a high number considering he threw just six picks during his freshman campaign.
During the post-game news conference, McGhee was the first to admit his performance was less than exemplary. He said he was “disappointed” in his play and that “he needed to go to work.” Tuesday, did McGhee still feel the same way five days after his team’s season-opening 27-10 loss to the Utes?
“Yes,” said the sophomore captain during the team’s weekly press conference. “I had a really, really, really uncalled for turnover. The linebacker (Blechen) scraped over the top. I have to keep my eyes on that and I didn’t. That’s a fundamental problem. I’m going to go back and work on that this week and prepare to win. I have to make sure on each rep I have in practice, that I have my eyes on the middle of the field. It’s a correction I will make this week in practice.”
McGhee’s performance wasn’t awful by any standards. In fact, it was solid. But to topple an FBS team, especially one from a major conference like the Pac-12, a dynamic performance is required. Just ask Sacramento State quarterback Jeff Fleming (22-for-25 for 257 yards and 3 TDs in Sac’s 29-28 win over Oregon State Saturday in Corvallis) or former Appalachian State star Armanti Edwards (289 total yards, 4 total TDs in his team’s 34-32 win at Michigan in 2007). The question still lingered: did McGhee buy into the preseason hype? Was the slow start of the MSU offense a product of pregame nerves? McGhee said none of the above.
“I don’t have pregame jitters, I don’t get nervous before games, I don’t buy into the hype,” McGhee said. “It was just fundamentals. A breakdown in fundamentals. That’s what happens if you don’t have great fundamentals. Plain and simple.”
Several Utah players - including Blechen - talked the week before the season opener about the importance of stopping McGhee if the Utes were to open up with a win. But McGhee may not have been the most important factor Utah removed from MSU’s offensive arsenal.
McGhee was sound if not awe-inspiring. Sophomore running back Cody Kirk averaged 5.3 yards per carry against a stout Utah defensive front. The MSU offensive line allowed just two sacks of McGhee, one of which came on a corner blitz. But it was the Utes’ ability to corral senior wide receiver Elvis Akpla that took away a great deal of MSU’s ability to stretch the field
“I was getting doubled the entire game,” said Akpla, who had one catch for 47 yards, extended his streak to 23 games with at least one reception. “It was different doubles, too. Sometimes they’d trail me with a safety over the top. Sometimes they’d bracket me. I got open anyways sometimes, but that’s just how it goes.”
By the ‘Cats’ late second-quarter drive, McGhee distributed the ball to several different receivers, a trademark of offensive coordinator Brian Wright’s scheme. Bleskin had four catches for 34 yards, including the touchdown, on the scoring drive.
“I remember Elvis coming off to the sidelines, saying ‘hey, they are doubling me,’” Bleskin said Tuesday. “That means somebody had to step up. We didn’t really say I was going to get the ball more this drive. But when you go out there and your number is called, you have to make a play. My number was called that scoring drive.”
This week, McGhee and his teammates return to FCS competition, a level they terrorized offensively a season ago. The Bobcats take on UC Davis in the team’s first game against an FCS opponent since putting up 452 yards of total offense and 33 points per game during McGhee’s breakout debut season.
Although Utah’s ability to negate Akpla affected the receiver and McGhee’s production, McGhee saw a silver lining. He liked the way Bleskin and John Ellis (four catches, 27 yards), among others, performed.
“Taking Elvis away affects us, but we have other guys who can help us on offense,” McGhee said. “Tanner Bleskin, John Ellis, Everett Gilbert, Kruiz Siewing, guys who have a lot of speed. They can double team Elvis all they want. We just have to hit teams in other areas.”
And what impression stuck with the sophomore gunslinger most after a game in which his team trailed 24-0, but never quit fighting?
“We played hard, as a group we played hard,” McGhee said. “We played physical as well. We didn’t back down to those guys by any means. I really look forward to this season because we have a bunch of tough guys on our team.”
By Colter Nuanez, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle