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Focus, fundamentals define Montana State wideout Bleskin
In 1984, tight end Joe Bignell had a monster year, hauling in 88 passes for 1,149 yards while helping Montana State catch lightning in a bottle and win a national championship.
Those numbers still stand as single-season school records, but they might not last much longer.
Right now, Bobcats wideout Tanner Bleskin is on a blistering pace to finish the 2013 regular season with 93 catches and 1,263 yards. And, provided MSU makes it, anything Bleskin does in the postseason will be decorative.
Last week against Stephen F. Austin, Bleskin became the Bobcats’ career leader with 2,268 receiving yards, surpassing former MSU stalwarts Chip Hobbs and Elvis Akpla.
Clearly, Bleskin has established himself as one of Montana State’s great pass-catchers, and he’s done it in the midst of what is the program’s best sustained run of success. But he’s also done it without flair, without much fanfare and without losing focus.
And that’s just the way he prefers it.
“It’s something I haven’t put a lot of thought into,” Bleskin said. “To be mentioned in that respect as far as the tradition that this school has, and to be at the top of a record like that, it means a lot. But it will mean a lot more when I’m done with football.
“Those (statistics) don’t give us a win on Saturday. It means a lot to me, but at the same time it doesn’t, because it’s all about the team. Right now, it’s all about winning.”
The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Bleskin came to Montana State out of Charles M. Russell High School in Great Falls. There, he played under legendary coach Jack Johnson, earning all-state honors.
After redshirting at MSU in 2009, Bleskin jumped into the lineup — coinciding with DeNarius McGhee’s manifestation at quarterback in 2010 — and produced like a veteran, catching 33 passes for 502 yards and three touchdowns.
In a wild, 64-61 win at Sacramento State that year, Bleskin came of age, making a 28-yard reception during a frantic last-minute drive which set up the tying touchdown that forced overtime.
Bleskin has been making big catches like that ever since.
“I’ve got to give credit to the coaches. They use me well,” he said. “I think my blocking sets up my catching, and I’m going to play hard every snap. I guess I’m not a typical wide receiver — I’m not the fastest. But I believe in myself. I just believe.”
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The term “possession receiver” is hardly one of endearment, so says seventh-year MSU coach Rob Ash.
Bleskin laughs when talking about his speed — or lack thereof — which is probably the only knock on his skill set. But whatever void of velocity exists, Bleskin makes up for it with technique, precise route-running and hands that stick like glue.
“I’m well aware of what people criticize me for — that I’m not fast enough,” Bleskin said. “But you always have to do something good. I take a lot of pride in catching the ball. I take a lot of pride in fundamentals. I focus on my strengths and don’t let my weaknesses hamper me at all.”
“He’s been extremely steady,” Ash said. “I hate to call him a possession receiver because he’s made big plays against all levels of competition. He’s catching passes, he’s blocking on running plays, he’s hustling all over the field … at the end of games he’s totally exhausted. And he never makes a mistake. He’s a competitor, and he desperately wants to win.”
In a second-round playoff victory over Stony Brook last December, Bleskin used his route-running ability to blow the top off the defense and make the game’s biggest play.
During an early series, Bleskin noticed the Stony Brook secondary was sitting on his short and intermediate patterns, not giving any respect to his opportunity to go long. So Bleskin came to the bench and notified the coaches, and they took advantage.
On MSU’s last drive of the first quarter, Bleskin went deep, got past an unsuspecting safety and McGhee found him over the top for a 69-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The Bobcats won the game, 16-10.
Smarts over speed. Works every time. It’s by far the longest reception of Bleskin’s career.
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Of the 160 catches Bleskin has made in three-plus seasons (he’s just 10 away from breaking Bignell’s school record in that category, too) few, if any, are as special as the 19 he’s caught in the past two games from his brother, sophomore quarterback Jake Bleskin.
Jake Bleskin was thrust into the starting role after McGhee suffered a separated shoulder at the end of the game at SMU. Jake made his first career start the following Saturday in a 26-0 win over Colorado Mesa, and was at the helm of the Bobcats’ 52-38 loss last week at Stephen F. Austin.
There have been ups and downs, but Jake is just the second quarterback in school history to throw for 300 yards in each of his first two starts.
“To me, Jake is Jake,” Tanner said. “I’ve grown up catching passes from him, and I think he’s his own unique guy. I used to try to tell Jake how to do things, but he’d just tell me to shut up. If he wants advice he’ll come to me. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.
“Jake’s just a competitor. He’s a winner. It hasn’t always been pretty, but he’s put us in a position to win, and I think he’s done a great job.”
The Bleskins and MSU, perhaps at a crossroads at 2-2, look to right the ship this week when they travel east to play North Dakota in their Big Sky Conference opener. Ash said the Bobcats’ “shock and disappointment of being 2-2 right now is the prevailing thought.”
You might call it a must-win, but isn’t that the case each Saturday?
“My approach is that every week is the Big Sky championship,” Bleskin said. “We have to go 1-0 every week. None of the games on the schedule will matter if we don’t take care of business this week.
“It’s a one-game-at-a-time approach. This is our Big Sky championship.”