Special to College Sports Journal
Editor’s note: This story is courtesy of Montana and North Dakota State athletics.
FARGO, N.D. — The Grizzlies can have August. The Bison will gladly continue to own December.
North Dakota State, the No. 3 seed in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, jumped out to a 24-0 lead and powered to a 37-6 victory over Montana Saturday afternoon at Fargo, N.D., in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
Revenge proved to be sweet for North Dakota State as the Bison started defense of their four consecutive NCAA Division I football titles by beating a Montana squad that had defeated NDSU in the opening FCS game of the 2015 season.
No. 3 seeded North Dakota State intercepted four passes and returned two for touchdowns to help spark the win over Montana before a crowd of 18,232 at Gate City Bank Field in the Fargodome.
The Bison also scored on a 100-yard kickoff return for a third-quarter backbreaker and held Montana to 235 yards of offense, a season low as North Dakota State won its 13th straight December game.
“We played a very good football team today,” said first-year Montana coach Bob Stitt. “We made a couple of errors early that cost us, then made some more errors that didn’t allow us to stay in the game.”
The Grizzlies, who had been in playoff mode the last five weeks, lost for the first time since October.
“You’re never happy after a loss, but we’re proud of what our kids did this year and how we dug out of a season that wasn’t looking very promising,” Stitt added.
Jalen Allison scored from 30 yards out, CJ Smith had a 32-yard return, and Bruce Anderson scored on a 100-yard kickoff return to help the Bison (10-2) advance to the FCS quarterfinals for the sixth straight season.
NDSU’s defense set the tone early holding Montana (8-5) to four yards on the game’s opening drive and forcing the Grizzleis to go three-and-out on six of their first seven possessions.
When North Dakota State and Montana met in Missoula in late August, a game won by the Grizzlies 38-35 on a one-yard scoring run by Joey Counts in the closing seconds, Montana gained 544 yards of offense, 434 of that coming through the air.
That production was nowhere to be found on Saturday, as the Bison held the Grizzlies to 63 yards in the first half while jumping out to a 21-0 halftime lead.
Quarterback Easton Stick ran up the middle for a 49-yard touchdown on NDSU’s third play and the Bison opened up a 21-point lead by halftime with Allison’s pick-six and a 15-yard touchdown run by Anderson, who led all players with 162 all-purpose yards.
After Montana opened the game with a harbinger of things to come — three plays, four yards, punt — North Dakota State, matching what it did in the teams’ first matchup in Missoula, went up 7-0 on its first possession.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Stick, making his seventh start in place of preseason All-American senior Carson Wentz, who was lost for the season in NDSU’s 24-21 home loss to South Dakota in mid-October, kept the ball on a savvy read off a stretch power play and raced up the middle untouched from 49 yards out.
It was the eighth time in 13 games this season that Montana allowed its opponent to score a touchdown on its opening possession.
“You’ve got to be very disciplined on defense against a team like this,” said Stitt, whose team gave up 250 rushing yards, the fifth time Montana has allowed 250 or more yards on the ground this season. “When they’re running stretch power, where they run stretch with the running back and the quarterback can run power, everyone has to be really gap sound, or they’re going to gash you.”
Montana was in North Dakota State territory its next two possessions, but both ended with Chris Lider punts. Defensively the Grizzlies forced the Bison into punts on three of their next four possessions. NDSU also missed a field goal that kept it 7-0 into the second quarter.
Cam Pedersen‘s 40-yard field goal put NDSU ahead 24-0 early in the third quarter before Montana got on the board with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Brady Gustafson to Jamaal Jones to cap a quick seven-play, 75-yard scoring drive, but a two-point conversion — intended to make it a two-possession game — failed on a Gustafson fumble.
Down 24-0 after North Dakota State’s first possession of the second half, Montana finally looked like the team that put up 57 points on Eastern Washington and 54 on Montana State.
Gustafson hit Jones for 15 yards on third-and-15 to get the drive started, then hit Ellis Henderson down the right sideline for 39 yards. Facing third-and-4 from the NDSU 20, Gustafson hit Jones from 20 yards out to make it 24-6.
Anderson returned the ensuing kickoff from the NDSU goal line to make it 31-6 and Smith’s interception early in the fourth quarter iced the game.
Following Anderson’s 100-yard kickoff return made it 31-6, Montana drove deep enough to give Daniel Sullivan a 49-yard field goal attempt with 6:27 remaining in the third quarter, but his kick was wide right, and the Grizzlies would not take another snap in Bison territory.
Montana did not move the ball into North Dakota State territory its final six possessions as the Grizzlies went quietly into the offseason.
“We just couldn’t get anything going on offense today,” said Stitt. “They really took it to us up front. When you can’t run the ball and get into long situations on second and third down, and you can’t protect your quarterback, it makes it pretty rough.”
The Bison outgained the Grizzlies 210-63. Montana, which rushed for almost 800 yards its previous four games, was held to just 15 on the ground. The Grizzlies finished with a season-low six for the game.
Defensive ends Stanley Jones, Brad Ambrosius and Greg Menard each recorded sacks and the Bison totaled six tackles for loss in addition to five quarterback hurries. Linebackers MJ Stumpf and Nick DeLuca led NDSU with 11 and eight tackles, respectively.
NDSU safeties Robbie Grimsley and Tre Dempsey each recorded interceptions, and Dempsey and Smith had three pass breakups apiece. The Bison held Gustafson to 24-of-48 passing for 229 yards after his 434-yard performance in Montana’s 38-35 season-opening win over NDSU.
North Dakota State, the FCS leader in time of possession, finished with 316 yards of offense and controlled the ball for more than 40 of the game’s 60 minutes.
One of 17 seniors playing in his final game, Jeremiah Kose led both teams with 19 tackles. Fellow senior Tyrone Holmes, one of three finalists for STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year, had one sack, bringing his career total to 34.5, second in program history behind Zack Wagenmann.
Jones capped his senior campaign with six catches for 90 yards. The transfer from Washington concludes his three-year Montana career with 3,011 receiving yards, leaving him seven behind only Marc Mariani in program history.
“I’m proud to be part of this program,” Stitt said. “We have some great things ahead.”
North Dakota State will have another rematch on its hands when it hosts a quarterfinal game next Saturday against Northern Iowa, which beat Portland State on Saturday night, 29-17.
The Bison pulled out a 34-31 win against UNI in the final seconds of a regular-season game.
Montana opens its 2016 season with a home game against Saint Francis on Sept. 3.
“It’s been a lot of fun. These kids have made it a lot of fun for me,” said Stitt, who was hired last December. “We’ve been through some ups and downs, so it felt really good to bring this team together and get to this point, and be able to travel to Fargo and play against the four-time defending national champions. It didn’t end the way anyone wanted it to, but these players should be proud of where they ended up.”