On one side of the FCS Playoff bracket, it’s no surprise: North Dakota State, who has appeared in eight of the last eleven FCS National Championship games, is headed back to Frisco to compete for yet another title. On the other side, however, is a team that has been a perennial playoff participant but hasn’t been in the FCS National Championship Game since the 1984: the Montana State Bobcats.
The Bobcats are no stranger to the FCS Playoffs – since 2002, the Bobcats have qualified for the playoffs ten times. In 2019, the last full season in which Montana State participated, they made it all the way to the semifinals – where they ultimately lost to the Bison in the Fargodome, 42-14.
After that game, Montana State lost their head coach, Jeff Choate, to the University of Texas, who hired him as a co-defensive coordinator. After hiring head coach Brent Vigen in January – and opting out the the spring season – they find themselves with a 12-2 record and this time facing North Dakota State in Frisco to possibly win their first National Championship in in 37 years.
How did they do it?
How were the Bobcats viewed in the preseason?
Montana State, along with some other members of the Big Sky conference, elected to opt out of the spring season.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes is paramount,” Montana State AD Leon Costello said of their decision. “The timeline for our football student-athletes to be physically prepared for the current conference schedule can’t be guaranteed given our climate and related circumstances. By altering our spring season, we will be able to focus on their physical training during the appropriate conditions and proper recovery for the fall season.”
After a full spring to prepare, Vigen’s team was picked by Big Sky coaches and media to finish 4th. One coach and three media members picked the Bobcats to win the conference.
Weber State, who played in the spring and made it to the FCS Semifinals in May, were picked by most of the coaches and media members to win the conference.
Here are the preseason rankings:
How did the Bobcats finish 9-2 within the 2021 regular season?
A narrow 19-16 win by bowl-bound Wyoming over the Bobcats were a tiny peek as to what was to come for Montana State in the fall of 2021. It took a Cowboy touchdown in the final minute to stymie the Bobcat’s upset bid. In that game, in another sign of things to come, RB Isaiah Ifanse would rush for over 100 yards, the first time a Montana State player would do that against an FBS opponent since 2016.
From there, Montana State would surge to nine straight victories, including wins against tough, nationally ranked Big Sky opponents, both on the road. The Bobcats would beat Weber State 13-7 and knock off Eastern Washington 23-20.
Montana State was in line for a top seed in the FCS Playoffs, but a regular season-ending loss to their bitter Rivals Montana ended that quest. After giving up a touchdown on the second play of the game, Montana State would keep the Grizzlies out of the end zone again until the 4th quarter, but it wasn’t enough.
As a result, the Bobcats entered the FCS Playoffs as the #8 overall seed – effectively only guaranteeing them one home game in the playoffs. Additionally, starting QB Matthew McKay announced on Twitter that he would be entering the Transfer Portal a mere 48 hours prior to the Bobcats’ playoff run – adding a big distraction to the Bobcats right before their playoff run.
Vigen and his team, however, would bounce back from this adversity in a big way over the next three weeks.
How did Montana State win its opening round playoff game?
The Bobcats rolled up 387 yards rushing over UT Martin in the opening round, dominating the Skyhawks 26-7 in a game that was never close.
The Bobcats were sparked by freshman QB Tommy Mellott’s first star,t as he scored twice and finished with a career-best 180 yards rushing. RB Isaiah Ifanse had another stellar day with 176 yards of his own and a fourth quarter touchdown that put the game out of reach.
See highlights of this game below:
How did the Bobcats advance through the quarterfinal round?
Many national pundits didn’t give the Bobcats any chance against the defending FCS National Champions on the road in Huntsville, Texas. Montana State then proceeded to give their hosts a rushing and defensive clinic as they walloped Sam Houston 42-19.
The Bobcats exploded out of the gates, marching 75 yards for a touchdown on the game-opening drive. RB Willie Patterson threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Mellott on a play that resembled the Eagles’ Philly Special in the Super Bowl. They’d go up 28-0 midway through the second quarter and the Bearkats never really threatened after that.
Three interceptions by the defense played a huge part in the win, two of which were converted into touchdowns by the offense. Jeffrey Manning, Tre Webb and Simeon Woodard got the turnovers that helped the Bobcats emerge victorious.
Mellott scored two rushing touchdowns and caught a scoring strike in addition to his two touchdown runs. He gained 76 yards on the ground and 165 through the air. The Cats rushed for 190 yards, holding Sam Houston to 79.
See highlights of the game below:
How did Montana State win the semifinal round game?
The “happy accident” of a FCS Semifinal game at home for the No. 8 seed ended up as a great, nationally-televised game against last years’ FCS Championship runner-up, South Dakota State. Underdogs again, in front of a home crowd of over 20,000 people, the Bobcats punched their ticket to Frisco with a complete 31-17 win over the Jackrabbits.
Tommy Mellott again sparked the Bobcats, running for two scores and throwing for two more. Meanwhile, the Bobcat defense was able to shut down the Jackrabbits high-powered offense, getting a pair of sacks from senior All-America Daniel Hardy and an interception by Simeon Woodard, his fourth of the season and second of the postseason. All-American senior linebacker Troy Andersen led all players with 10 tackles.
Mellott’s 17-yard scoring pass to senior Lance McCutcheon iced the game, giving MSU its 31-17 advantage in the fourth quarter. On the final play of the third quarter, Mellott squirted through for a 3-yard score, breaking the halftime score of 17-all as SDSU was unable to find the end zone in the second half.
See highlights of this classic contest below:
What is the prior history of postseason play for Montana State?
After qualifying for the NCAA Playoffs twice previously (with a cumulative 6-0 record), the Bobcats have earned 10 bids, and nine wins, since 2002.
In their most recent trip to the playoffs in 2019, the Bobcats lost in the semifinals to North Dakota State 42-14 in what would be QB Trey Lance’s final collegiate football game in the Fargodome. After winning a narrow, field goal only scoring battle 9-3 over Illinois State the prior week, the Bison erupted for 541 yards and six touchdowns in a game that wasn’t close.
In 2018, Montana State also fell to North Dakota State in the Fargodome 52-10 in the FCS Playoffs. Lance Dunn scored four touchdowns all in the first half and top playoff seeded North Dakota State overwhelmed Montana State 52-10 in a second-round Division I FCS playoff game in front of 17,007 fans at at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
In both playoff games, North Dakota State jumped out to early leads on big plays, which put the Bobcats behind the 8-ball very early. It was critical in both of their wins.
This season, the six playoff wins by the 2021 senior class is the most in Bobcat history, and the 36 wins is second-most (after the 2010-13 group).
Additionally, MSU is the 14th different opponent NDSU has faced for an NCAA Championship.
Ready for Frisco
Senior LB Troy Andersen, OL Lewis Kidd, RB Isaiah Ifanse and DE Daniel Hardy were voted onto the STATS Perform FCS All-America team this December.
In addition, Andersen earned National Defensive Player of the Year honors from the Football Championship Subdivision Athletic Directors Association (FCS ADA).
The award marked the first national player of the year honor for Andersen, from Dillon, Montana, who is a unanimous First Team All-America this season. He also landed Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year honors and is one of the top three in votes received for the Stats Perform Buck Buchanan Award, which is announced Friday night.
Andersen finished 11th in the FCS in total tackles and 12th in solo tackles. He has double-digit tackles in seven of the team’s last eight games and has 140 total tackles, 14 for a loss, with three sacks this season. He also intercepted two passes and broke up seven others.
Vigen and the Bobcats have won this year by doing two things better than most of their opponents: running the ball, and stopping the run. Behind Mellot and Ifanse, and a great defense, they’ll hope that recipe will be enough to have a new team lift the trophy in Frisco this Saturday.
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
Reach him at: this email or click below: