2021 Division I FCS Playoff Quarterfinal Preview: #8 Montana State Bobcats at #1 Sam Houston Bearkats

GAME PREVIEW: # 8 Montana State vs. #1 Sam Houston
When: Saturday, December 11 at 7:30PM CST
Where: Bowers Stadium; Huntsville, Texas
TV/Streaming: ESPN+

Sam Houston’s defense came up with a clutch stop on fourth and goal to hold off a late rally in a 49-42 victory over Incarnate Word in the second round of the FCS playoffs at Bowers Stadium last Saturday afternoon. Running back Ramon Jefferson rushed for 166 yards and two touchdowns for the Bearkats, who remained unbeaten at home in the playoffs and extended their win streak to 22 games dating back to the 2019 season. Running back Noah Smith added 95 yards and a score on the ground. Eric Schmid threw for 210 yards and rushed for 47, while wide receiver Jequez Ezzard had one carry for 29 yards and four catches for 60 yards.

Montana State rushed for 387 yards, ran the ball on 60 of its 80 offensive plays, and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in a 26-7 win over UT-Martin in the second round of the FCS playoffs on a windy, cold afternoon in Bozeman. Running back Isaiah Ifanse pounded the Skyhawk defense for 176 yards on 28 carries, scoring once. Quarterback Tommy Mellott gained 180 yards and provided the biggest blow of the game when he scampered 73 yards for a touchdown on MSU’s first play of the fourth quarter.

Montana State Bobcats (10-2, 2nd in Big Sky)

The Bobcat offense is good but not great – they’re scoring 28.9 points per game, which is 44th in the FCS; their 410.7 yards of total offense per game is 29th in the FCS.

Matthew McKay threw for 2,021 yards (183.7 ypg) during the regular season to lead Montana State, completing 62.2% of his passes and recording 17 touchdown passes and three interceptions this season, but a week before the UT Martin game he put his name in the transfer portal, meaning QB Tommy Mellott got his first career start in a baptism of fire. His baptism went extremely well – he scored twice and finished with a career-best 180 yards rushing. Passing he went 8 for 20 for 51 yards.

Isaiah Ifanse’s team-high 1,258 rushing yards (114.4 per game) have come on 210 carries, with eight touchdowns this year. Last week against UT Martin he ran for 176 yards and a late touchdown to effectively seal the win.

Lance McCutcheon’s 904 receiving yards (82.2 yards per game) lead the team. He also had 50 receptions with six touchdowns during the regular season.

The Bobcats are stout defensively – opponents are only scoring 12.67 points per game, which ranks second in the FCS; they’re only giving up 272.1 yards per game, which is eighth in the FCS. Defensively, the Bobcats collectively stymied the Skyhawks last week, holding them to just 11 first downs and only 57 offensive plays. Callahan O’Reilly led the charge with 10 tackles while Daniel Hardy was in on two sacks and Simeon Woodard had the game’s only interception.

Sam Houston State football player Eric Schmid.

Sam Houston Bearkats (11-0, 1st in WAC) 

The Bearkat offense is humming right now – they’re scoring 43 points per game, which is third in the FCS; their 496.1 yards per game is fourth in the FCS. It’s a good thing, too – they needed that offense to be on all cylinders as the Bearkats outlasted Incarnate Word 49-42 last round.

Eric Schmid leads Sam Houston with 2,238 passing yards (248.7 ypg) on 166-of-295 (56.27 % comp. pct.) passing with 26 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions this season. He scored what ended up being the game-winning touchdown last week on a QB sneak to break a 42-42 tie late in the 4th quarter.

The team’s top rusher, Ramon Jefferson, has carried the ball 140 times for 978 yards (97.8 per game), with 11 touchdowns this year. He ran for 166 yards and 2 TDs against the Cardinals.

Cody Chrest’s team-leading 584 receiving yards (58.4 yards per game) have come on 40 receptions with five touchdowns. He and WR Jequez Ezzard make a formidable 1-2 receiving punch.

Defensively the Bearkats are allowing 19.55 points per game, which is 20th in the FCS; they’re giving up 345.1 yards per game, which is 36th in the FCS. They gave up a lot more than that against Incarnate Word, but they came up with a clutch stop on fourth and goal to hold off the Cardinal rally.

Fearless Predictions

Chuck: The Bearkats are simply too strong at home, especially with Montana State’s QB situation. Montana benefited greatly last week with the cold, windy weather and home field advantage. With the weather likely to be temperate in Huntsville, the floodgates should open for the Bearkats in the second half. Sam Houston 44, Montana State 17.

Ray: Much has been made of the QB situation in Bozeman. However, there is a concept Brent Vigen learned long ago at NDSU that many schools are slowly adopting: Next Man Up. Vigen has dealt with it before and that experience will end Sam Houston’s magic carpet ride of 2021. Montana State 21, Sam Houston 17.

Kent: The Bearkats playing at home has been a good formula for this team both in this past spring’s season and this fall so far. Sam Houston, however, has not made it easy on themselves as all four games have been tight. I know there are some question marks with Montana State especially at the quarterback position but I can’t see how Sam Houston will play much different than they have with their prior playoff opponents in this calendar year. MSU will keep Sam Houston down enough to keep this game close until the end. The Bearkats, however, have their home magic and will prevail again this game late. Sam Houston 31, Montana State 27.

Jamie: This matchup doesn’t bode well for Montana State. their defense will keep the Bearkats at bay for a while, but Sam Houston’s defense matches with Montana States offensive strength. Add in MSU starting a quarterback for his second straight start and that says Sam Houston is moving on. Sam Houston 27, Montana State 17.