2022 Division I FCS National Championship Game Preview: #8 Montana State vs. #2 North Dakota State

FCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP MATCHUP: MONTANA STATE VS. NORTH DAKOTA STATE
WHERE: TOYOTA STADIUM, FRISCO, TEX.
WHEN: SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 12:00 PM EST
TV/STREAMING: ESPN2 / WATCHESPN

These two border state schools in the northern part of the country head south to Texas to see who is the best in the FCS this year when Montana State and North Dakota State meet this Saturday.

For the Bison, this is old hat. This is NDSU’s ninth trip to Frisco in the last 11 years. The two missing years were this past spring’s contest–held then due to the COVID-19 pandemic and in 2016 when James Madison upset NDSU in the semi-final round. And all prior eight trips to north Texas have resulted in the Bison capturing the crown.

For Montana State, this is the first trip to the national title game since 1984 when the Bobcats won the title over Louisiana Tech in a game played in Charleston, S.C. MSU has been a contender in the playoffs though as the last season this team played it made it to the FCS semifinals in 2019 to the same team it will playing this year in the title game in NDSU.

Overall, Montana State has a 21-15 series edge to this series dating back to 1914. However, NDSU has a 3-1 edge in the series as Division I opponents including three straight wins in the FCS playoffs. The Bison won in Bozeman 42-17 in the 2010 second round and won in Fargo 52-10 in the 2018 second round and 42-14 in the 2019 semifinals.

This will also be a bit of a homecoming for Montana State Coach Brent Vigen. He was a former NDSU player in the mid-1990s and also an assistant coach after his playing days with the Bison. His last position with NDSU was as the offensive coordinator with the 2013 national title team. He left NDSU with Coach Craig Bohl to be on in the same position at Wyoming and held that position until just over a year ago when he was announced as the new Montana State head coach. Vigen took the place of former Coach Jeff Choate, who left Bozeman to become the defensive coordinator at Texas.

NDSU Coach Matt Entz joined the NDSU staff in 2014–right after Vigen left NDSU so the two never coached together in Fargo. Entz was hired as the NDSU defensive coordinator under then head coach Chris Klieman. When Klieman left after the 2018 season, Entz was promoted to the head job for the 2019 and became the first Division I first-year head coach to finish 16-0 on the way to a national title.

The two most recent playoff games likely do not indicate how this game will end. The prior and fairly recent two games were easy NDSU wins in the playoffs but both are different teams this year. Here is a look at how these two squads match-up statistically:

Montana State Bobcats (12-2, 7-1 Big Sky)

LOCATION: Bozeman, Mont.

HEAD COACH: Brent Vigen (1st Season, 12-2 @ MSU & Overall)

The Bobcats enter the national title game after knocking off South Dakota State in the semifinal round and also knocked off #1 and defending champion Sam Houston in the quarterfinal round. So MSU was able to knock off both of the spring’s finalists in back-to-back weeks. Montana State did all of this with a new starting quarterback–Tommy Mellott,

Mellott started his first game of his colligate career in the Bobcats’ first playoff game in the second round versus Tennessee-Martin. He has thrown for 449 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 411 yards and six touchdowns in three postseason games. See highlights below from Montana State’s semifinal victory over South Dakota State.

Mellott was sprung into the starting role as a freshman after former starter Matthew McKay. Coach Vigen made a tough call ahead of the playoffs where the Bobcats has two weeks to prepare for their second round opponent and benched McKay, who quickly hopped into the transfer portal.

Mellott had RB Isaiah Ifanse behind him in the first two playoff games but Ifanse had a knee injury and had to sit out the semifinal win. With three weeks between the semifinal round and the championship game, Ifanse should be back in this contest. He rushed for over 100 yards in eight games he has played this year. In total, he has a 118.4 rushing yards per game average this season , which is 3rd in the FCS. He also set MSU’s single-season rushing record against Sam Houston (currently 1,539).

The wide receivers are not widely used in the Bobcat run-heavy offense but have two capable home run hitting kind of pass catchers. This has shown in the playoffs. Lance McCutcheon has a 68-yard score against Sam Houston and Nate Stewart had 64-yard scoring catch against SDSU.

But while there is some life on the offense much to the credit of Mellott under center, the true strength of the Bobcats is its defense. Led by LB and Buck Buchannan finalist Troy Andersen (14 TFL, 137 tackles!) and DE Daniel Hardy (23 TFLs, 16 sacks), the Bobcats have allowed just 107.9 yards a game on the ground, 13th best in the FCS.

Key Player: RB Isaiah Ifanse

While most of the attention (and rightfully so) has been put on QB Tommy Mellott, Ifanse coming back is a big plus for the Bobcat offense. It will be key to this likely defensive strong game for the Bobcats to control the ball to also control time of possession. With Ifanse leading the rushing charge, the Bobcats had the FCS’ 7th best with 225.5 yards per game,

Ifanse will need to help grind out yardage against the stout NDSU defense to keep third down yardage manageable for Mellott and company to keep moving the chains. It will also be key for the Bobcats to not turn the ball over and also to get a score early to keep from what happened the last two times these schools met where NDSU raced out to really an insurmountable lead by halftime.

North Dakota State Bison (12-1, 7-1 MVFC)

LOCATION: Fargo, N.D.

HEAD COACH: Matt Entz (3rd Season, 36-4 @ NDSU & Overall)

NDSU is in the title game in Frisco for the ninth time and second time under Head Coach Matt Entz. Frisco has become what many Bison fans call “Fargo South”. NDSU has never lost yet in Frisco in their prior eight trips and will be looking to make it nine straight, what those fans might saw home wins.

This year’s Bison team reminds many Bison fans possibly of the first Division I championship team in 2011 with mostly a strong running game and a stout defense.

NDSU easily won its first two playoff games against Southern Illinois and East Tennessee State that set-up an epic semifinal game against James Madison, who was the lone school to ever beat NDSU in a playoff game in Fargo. The two teams would meet for the fifth time and like most meetings, it came down to the final ticks on the clock before it was decided.

The Bison would prevail 20-14 led by the efforts of FB Hunter Luepke, who had 199 all-purpose yards and North
Dakota State’s defense that got two late stops to secure the win. CB Destin Talbert made a leaping one-handed interception in the end zone with 3:05 left in the game, and DEs Javier Derritt and Logan McCormick combined for a sack and pass breakup on the final two plays of the game. See highlights of this classic semifinal game below:

NDSU QB Cam Miller took over for an injured Quincy Patterson late this fall against Missouri State in mid-October and has not let go of the starting role. He finished the regular season in brilliant form — 29-for-37 for 388 yards and three touchdowns against Youngstown State and South Dakota. He has not been so good in the playoff as he has been completed just 29 of 50 passes for 376 yards, two TDs and one interception in total in the three Bison playoff wins.

Some of the numbers might be skewed due to a hamstring injury to top WR Christian Watson. He had to sit out all three playoff games. The Senior Bowl selected wide out gives the Bison a top deep threat that was missing in the prior playoff games and so far is a game-time decision if he will play in this game.

The offense though has not really needed the passing game as it has the third best running attack in the FCS. The Bison do this really by a large stable of backs at their disposal. RBs TaMerik Williams and Kobe Johnson have combined for 1,280 yards (6.0 per carry) and 14 touchdowns, while FB Luepke has provided excellent lead blocking plus 461 yards (with 179 of those in the last two games).

But much like Montana State, NDSU has really won this season because of its outstanding defense that ranks first in scoring defense (just 11.2 points per game) and third best against the run (82.7 yards per game). The group is headed by LB Jackson Hankey (93 total tackles, 2.5 TFL) and disruptive linemen Eli Mostaert and Brayden Thomas (a combined 24.5 TFL and 16.5 sacks).

Key Player: WR Christian Watson

Earlier it was mentioned that Watson is a game time decision but with this being his last game in a Bison uniform before heading to the Senior Bowl as one of the top NFL draft picks, I have to believe Watson wants to go out on the field. He is a key member as he will open up the Montana State defense to respect his receiving abilities and will open up the running game.

Watson has been a key kick returner in the past but he likely will not do this role but I could see the Bison using him in the running game on a reverse or two to take away the aggressiveness of the MSU defense. He will likely get a big pass play opportunity that will be a key moment in the game to switch the tide in the game.

Fearless Predictions:

Chuck: Can Brent Vigen and the Bobcats break the spell?  Montana State and North Dakota State don’t only share a similar path to the championship (recent loss to their bitter Rivals spurring a team through the playoffs), Vigen knows all about this game from the other side as a coach as well.  It’s almost an old-fashioned “mirror match” between the Bison and the “Bozeman Bison”.  I see a game where defense reigns, and the more experienced team – this time – coming on top.  NDSU 20, MSU 19.

Jamie: 3 extra weeks of prep for Matt Entz. 3 extra weeks with the 1s for Tommy Mellott. Which wins out? Its Frisco. NDSU has been there and done that.  I think this is an evenly matched game in every facet except experience.  But experience matters.  And for NDSU that will be enough to carry NDSU to yet another title. NDSU 27 MSU 23.

Preston: I won’t repeat anything that the other have. Montana State did what they had to do in order to get to the finals under some pretty interesting circumstances losing their starting QB to the portal. NDSU, I think inarguably had the much tougher path to this final. NDSU’s strength is Montana State’s when it comes to run stop vs. running game. I see NDSU controlling the clock and kind of scrimmage in this one.  NDSU-31 Montana State-20

Ray: The Big Stage is nothing new to Brent Vigen and it will show. But this game promises to be much more than a matchup of two quality football teams. It might even be the best chess match in history.

Vigen knows what the Bison like to do on offense and current Bison OC Tyler Roehl and the rest of the Bison coaching staff knows that Vigen knows and Vigen knows they know.

The key figures to be which side does the best at adding some wrinkles that does not take away from what got them to this point.

Wrinkles are good … getting fancy is not. Defense still wins out: NDSU 17, MSU 13

Kent: I agree with my collogues on this one that being in Frisco before for most players is a key to this game. While Coach Vigen for the Bobcats also knows a thing or two about getting a team ready for a championship game, it has been eight years since he has done it.

This will be a defensive struggle and turnovers at any time of the game will be a huge factor for the winner. While I like what Mallott had done so far with the Bobcats, he has not seen the Bison defense before. I don’t believe NDSU will runaway with the game by half in this one, the Bison will win by just over a touchdown to get their ninth DI title. North Dakota State 26 Montana State 17

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