'Best of' the FCS championship game teams: Montana State vs. North Dakota State
By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - The FCS championship game usually brings the two best teams together, and the finalists who seek to finish No. 1, Montana State and North Dakota State, look quite similar heading into Saturday's showdown in Frisco, Texas.
They're among the best in the FCS in rushing the ball, stopping the run game and wearing down opponents.
Those trademarks shouldn't be surprising. North Dakota State is the gold standard of the FCS, having won eight of the last 10 national titles - most recently under coach Matt Entz to cap the 2019 season - and Montana State first-year coach Brent Vigen was a Bison player or assistant coach for over two decades, including as the offensive coordinator for the first three championship seasons of this dynasty.
"I think he's probably brought some of that in, whether he's told us that or not," Montana State linebacker Troy Andersen said.
North Dakota State (13-1) and Montana State (12-2) may look similar, but let's differentiate the best of their 2021 season and in what to watch for on Saturday:
Best Spring Season
This is a vastly different scenario, but certainly a push. NDSU went 7-3 in the unprecedented spring season - disappointing by the program standard - but got lots of reps and younger players ready for the fall campaign. Montana State opted out of the pandemic-plagued season and used the extra time to acclimate to a new coaching staff and perhaps be fresher than opponents in the 2021 playoffs.
The Bison's offensive line has been at the center (well, literally) of the FCS dynasty. This season, their starting lineup, anchored by two-time first All-American Cordell Volson, goes just over 6-foot-5, 308 pounds on average and has powered the No. 3 rushing attack (273.6 ypg) in the FCS. The Bobcats are in the midst of their best four-game stretch against the run and their season average (106.7 ypg) is the program's lowest since 2009. Their four-man defensive line features nose tackle Chase Benson (who's coming off an injury) and ends Daniel Hardy and Amandre Williams.
Best Story Line
Montana State freshman quarterback Tommy Mellott made his first career start to open the playoffs and has since earned legendary status in Bobcats lore as "Touchdown" Tommy. In three wins, he's produced 11 TDs (six rushing, four passing and one receiving) and gained nearly as many rushing yards (412) as passing yards (449).
Best All-Around Player
The aforementioned Andersen (6-3, 235) has written an incredible story at Montana State. He's been the 2017 Big Sky freshman of the year while playing both running back and linebacker, a 2018 first-team all-conference selection at quarterback, a 2019 first-team selection at outside linebacker and this season's Big Sky defensive player of the year after moving inside to middle linebacker.
Best NFL Prospect
NDSU wide receiver Christian Watson has yet to appear in the playoffs due to a hamstring injury, but the Bison are hoping for his return. A newly announced Senior Bowl invite, Watson has size (6-4, 208), speed and big-play ability, as evidenced by his back-to-back touchdowns of at least 70 yards (one rushing, one receiving) in a two-minute span of the Bison's 2019 semifinal-round win over Montana State.
Best Off the Bench
NDSU sophomore defensive tackle Eli Mostaert (6-3, 280) has yet to start a game, but he's been a difference maker in the middle of a stout defense with 40 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks for 50 yards in losses over 14 games.
There's a three-week break between the national semifinals and the championship game. Since 2006, the Bison have won 36 straight games following open weeks in the regular season and postseason (20 home games, eight road games and eight championship games in Frisco). But note, the first eight seasons of this remarkable run were Vigen's last eight at his alma mater.
The championship game will have the final say, but NDSU (11.2) and Montana State (13.4) rank first and second, respectively, in the FCS in points allowed per game. The Bison defense's ppg is the lowest of their Division I era (since 2004). The Bobcats, whose defensive coordinator Freddie Banks is a former Bison player, have held 12 of 13 opponents (not counting the opener) below their previous season average in scoring.
Fullback Hunter Luepke is the hot hand in the NDSU backfield, but wherever you look, there's another back who's ready to make a splash. TaMerik Williams and Kobe Johnson are the team's leading rushers and Jalen Bussey has breakaway ability. Montana State doesn't have the same depth if 1,500-yard rusher Isaiah Ifanse is not fully recovered from a knee injury.
OK, one for each team. Montana State bounced defending FCS champion Sam Houston, 42-19, in the FCS quarterfinals. Mellott accounted for five touchdowns and the Bobcats jumped to a 28-0 lead while ending the Bearkats' 22-game winning streak. NDSU won the most anticipated game of the postseason, eliminating James Madison, 20-14, in the semifinals as Luepke totaled 199 scrimmage yards and caught two TD passes from quarterback Cam Miller.
It's been the Missouri Valley Football Conference for over a decade and continues with a record 11th straight season of having a national finalist (thank you, NDSU dynasty). The Valley also has won the first four regular-season challenge series that it has with the Big Sky. But a Montana State win would provide a big boost for the Big Sky, which had four teams in the top eight of the final regular-season rankings.
Updated January 6, 2022