After spotting an opening in the pocket and bolting, Tommy Mellott dove for extra yardage.
Looking back, the Montana State freshman quarterback from Butte realized he tried to do too much. A UT Martin defender knocked the ball out of his hands, and the Skyhawks returned it 68 yards for a touchdown with less than a minute before halftime.
“Just growing as a young quarterback,” Mellott said.
A 10-point lead dwindled to three. Mellott, in his first career start, had completed 4 of 12 passes for 26 yards before intermission. The Bobcats realized Mellott would experience moments to learn from.
He certainly bounced back in the second half. He completed 50% of his throws afterward and led the team with 180 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, including a 73-yarder which was an MSU record for the postseason.
As the No. 8-seeded Bobcats (10-2) prepare to play at top-seeded Sam Houston (11-0) in the FCS quarterfinals at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Mellott is hoping to improve in a little amount of time.
“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Mellott said. “That’s who it is right now, so we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
In May at a Bobcat Quarterback Club meeting in Butte, MSU head coach Brent Vigen told attendees Mellott was a fourth-string quarterback but was making strides.
“So you mean Tommy Mellott’s not going to play?” Vigen recalled someone responding.
Vigen noted the people of Butte have certainly been happier this week.
“They’re proud of Tommy obviously and know the player he is,” Vigen said. “He’s made an impact in a lot of different ways through the course of the fall and getting an opportunity to be out there as the full-time quarterback, there was work to get to that point for him. And that’s what I appreciate about him.”
Other MSU quarterbacks like Matthew McKay, who had started every other game of the season before he was benched and announced he was entering the transfer portal last week, received plenty of snaps with the first and second teams in the offseason.
Meanwhile, Mellott was hoping to make it onto the field in any way he could. He practiced his run plays behind center, but he also ran routes as a wide receiver and worked on special teams.
Still, Vigen noticed Mellott made the time to hone his skills as a passer. For Mellott to earn the role he did, the coach added, he could never let up.
“He came in and attacked it at full force. He was ready to go,” MSU center Justus Perkins said of Mellott after he became the starter. “At the end of the day, it is his show so we want to make him as comfortable as possible back there.”
During spring practices, Vigen didn’t think Mellott would have developed as much as he has. The rushing prowess was evident.
But his improvement as a passer became a crucial reason why he was elevated to starter. As August and September unfolded, Vigen noticed encouraging signs.
The Bobcats realized they wanted QB run plays to be a vital component to their offense. Thus, Mellott’s role steadily increased as he handled more duties behind center.
“Ultimately it came down to a decision where, let’s get him out there all the time,” Vigen said, “so that threat is always out there and then couple that with how he’s coming along as a thrower.”
Mellott missed some throws early Saturday in the second round of the FCS playoffs. He said after the game he was frustrated with his performance through the air. Vigen felt he was “pretty amped up” and plays unfolded faster than Mellott was perhaps accustomed to.
UT Martin presented an “ultra aggressive” defense, Vigen added, which also didn’t make anything easier. But the Bobcats found some better aspects of their offense to go to in the second half, and the results were promising.
One of the apparent elements the Bobcats relied on was purposefully asking Mellott to sprint out on throwing plays.
Vigen said that wasn’t a matter of Mellott not understanding the offensive line’s protections. That just happened to fit the team’s scheme for that game, especially while dealing with winds of over 20 mph.
Perkins added not much changes for MSU’s offensive line, despite Mellott’s athletic skill set being unique to the Bobcats’ other signal callers.
“Obviously he can still grow in some places because it was his first start at the end of the day,” Perkins said. “We try to help him as much as possible.”
Mellott became MSU’s full-time quarterback over Tucker Rovig and Casey Bauman, who have both started games for the Bobcats, in large part because of his rushing skills. He paced the team on the ground, and MSU’s 387 total rushing yards was the most ever for the program in the playoffs.
Mellott completed 8 of 20 passes for 51 yards. Vigen believes Mellott has “solid arm strength” and can throw the ball where he needs to. And he’ll have yet another week to practice with the team’s other starters.
“His ability to run the football I think has been more than apparent through the course of the season, and then his development as a passer, you put those things together, I think that was clearly the best choice for our offense,” Vigen said. “It probably didn’t show entirely. But our team was behind it wholeheartedly.”
Mellott’s teammates helped him feel more calm. And Vigen said the Bobcats respect Mellott for his willingness to play anywhere, including as a first-time starting quarterback in the postseason.
Mellott’s ultimate goal, he emphasized, is helping the team win. Whether that’s completing all of his throws or rushing for three times more yards than he throws for, that’s what he’s set on accomplishing.
Because of how potent MSU’s rushing attack has been and how stout its defense is, Mellott may not need to set any records through the air. But limiting his mistakes would be crucially beneficial.
“We understand how good of a quarterback he is,” MSU defensive end Amandre Williams said. “It’s just a matter of reassuring him, ‘Just take the game slow. Just play your game. Don’t need to do anything special, and we’ll be just fine.’”