In the FCS Huddle: Bobcats' thunder and lightning run wild

Bozeman, MT ( - Thunder and lightning, baby.

The way Montana State running back Cody Kirk carries the ball has earned him the thunder portion of the nickname, while the explosiveness of Shawn Johnson is like lightning.

Together, the two backs provided the basis for Montana State's lopsided 36-7 win over 15th-ranked Northern Arizona at the Bobcats' Homecoming ceremony Saturday.

The Lumberjacks were coming off a hefty win over Montana in Flagstaff a week ago, so many expected the contest with Montana State to be a toss-up for the winner. On paper, the matchup of Northern Arizona's relentless defense versus Bobcats quarterback DeNarius McGhee and his recent separated shoulder seemed to favor the Lumberjacks. But McGhee barely needed to be involved Saturday.

Northern Arizona had trouble handling Kirk and Johnson from the get-go. Just over five minutes into the contest, Johnson broke a 27-yard run through Lumberjacks defenders to give the Bobcats a 7-0 lead. Kirk carried for 26 yards on their first drive, helping set up the score.

It was a trend that would continue throughout the game, although Montana State's offense isn't typically known for its dominant ground attack. Kirk ended the day with 156 rushing yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, while Johnson carried the ball 13 times for 92 yards and a score. McGhee also added a 9-yard rushing score.

"I'll ground and I'll pound, and you (Johnson) hit them for the big one," Kirk said of the duo's running style after Saturday's win. "I think it's a good compliment, it's a good balance that we have. It keeps us diverse on the field, and Shawn does a great job. Shawn had a great game."

Take into consideration Johnson's kick return ability, too. The junior contributed a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter, just after the Northern Arizona defense picked off a McGhee pass and took it back for the team's only score of the day. Whatever momentum the Lumberjacks had after that defensive touchdown quickly evaporated with Johnson's return.

Kirk and Johnson combined for 402 all-purpose yards on the day.

Speaking of successful running games, the Lumberjacks didn't get much out of theirs Saturday. Walter Payton Award candidate Zach Bauman, coming off two consecutive 100-plus-yard games, was held to nine carries for 26 yards.

The early Lumberjacks deficit didn't help Bauman's chances at getting carries, but when he did touch the ball, the Bobcats defense was there to swallow him up.

"Our guys are very proud here, and very competitive," Montana State coach Rob Ash said. "I think that's good. So when a team comes in that has a really good defense, our defense tries to show that we have a good defense, too. And when they have a really good running back, our running backs like to try to show that they're pretty good, too. And our defense likes to shut them down because they'd like the league to think that our guys are good, too.

"So there's a competition there that kind of raises the level of the guys on our team to prove that they're not bad players."

The Montana State defense was very aware of Bauman's ability coming in to the contest, and made a conscious effort in practice to up the run-stuffing ability.

"We knew they had a good running back coming in, a good run game in Bauman," Bobcats defensive back Deonte Flowers said, "and we just prepared all week. We knew they were going to try to run the ball down our throats, and our defensive front seven played well today, so we came out and executed."

The Bobcats outrushed the Lumberjacks, 276 to 64 yards.

Montana State almost uncharacteristically ran the ball 52 times in the win, while McGhee and backup quarterback Jake Bleskin attempted a combined 21 passes. The Bobcats didn't attempt a single pass on their first drive which led to Johnson's score - possibly foreshadowing the tempo for the rest of the game.

Kirk said he could see the Northern Arizona defense getting worn down by so many run plays by the way the safeties began tackling lower, trying to avoid any more bruising hits from "thunder."

Ash said the identity of this Montana State team changes each and every week depending on the opponent across the field on the opposite sideline.

This week, his defense stepped up to limit the explosive power of Bauman in the Northern Arizona backfield, while the running game made its presence felt against a talented but helpless Lumberjacks defense.

On a beautiful day in Bozeman, the record crowd didn't mind a little thunder and lightning.