FCS National Championship Prediction & Preview: Montana State vs. North Dakota State – AthlonSports.com
They’re finally back – the Montana State Bobcats are back in the FCS National Championship after a 38-year hiatus.
On the flip side, the state of North Dakota is also back in the game for the title – which to Bison fans probably seems like 24 years old instead of the actual 24 months. Of course, this NDSU “drought” had as much to do with a global pandemic as it did with opposition.
Montana State (12-2) hasn’t played in the FCS (then known as I-AA) national title game since winning his only appearance in 1984. To put that into perspective, this was when many of her current Cat players parents were trying to moonwalk to the music of Michael Jackson. Don’t you know what I’m talking about because it was 38 years ago?
Exactly. This is my point.
Montana State has been a solid program for the most part for the past 20+ years, winning or sharing seven Big Sky Conference titles and making 10 FCS playoff appearances. But he didn’t reach the national title match. On the other hand, the NDSU is so used to making the annual trip to Frisco that many Bison fans dressed in yellow and green are buying tickets to the title game in the summer – even before the season begins.
Supreme confidence or supreme wisdom? It’s just semantics at this point.
So here we are. The No. 1 and No. 2 scoring defenses, two games in the top 10 on offense – two well-trained black and blue programs overall. Two FCS / I-AA blue bloods with large fan bases that travel well, and the first trip to a title match for one of FCS’s two Montana monsters in the Frisco era.
Montana State’s two losses in 2021 came from three points to an FBS (Wyoming) team that took the bowl and the Bobcats’ bitter rivals in northern Montana. NDSU’s only loss came by eight points to its bitter southern rival (South Dakota State). Other than that? They combined for 25 wins.
Let the show begin.
FCS National Championship: No.8 Montana State (12-2) vs. No.2 North Dakota State (13-1)
To start up: Saturday, Jan. 8 at 12 p.m. ET
Or: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
Propagated: State of North Dakota -7
When the state of Montana has the ball
This is probably the most interesting match in the game – the one with the most question marks. The reason? The Bobcats’ surprise story of the year. Besides, you could call it in the FCS surprise story of the year.
If freshman quarterback Tommy Mellott had been a starter all year and played like that, he undoubtedly would have won the Jerry Rice Award for the nation’s top freshman. But he’s only been a full-time starter since the start of the playoffs, although he has occasionally been used as a sub-center change player during the regular season – mainly to lead the ball.
And boy, boy, did this change work. Mellott is the wild card.
When the Bobcats knocked out South Dakota State in the national semifinals, they scored 31 points on the board, and Mellott had 233 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 155 and two scores. Yes – 388 yards tallied and four touchdowns.
North Dakota State only managed 19 points in its loss to SDSU, with 380 total attacking yards for the team and just two offensive touchdowns. So this is something to watch out for.
With 1,500-yard rusher Isaiah Ifanse listed as a starter earlier this week after missing the semifinals with injury, this is also a key thing to watch out for. Turns out Montana State didn’t need Ifanse to win the semi-final game – but he’ll need him to be a part of things on Saturday. Mellott carrying the 34 of 42 ball that the team carries again, as he did in the semifinals, doesn’t seem like a recipe for success against NDSU.
And wide receiver Lance McCutcheon (1,015 yards, 7 TDs) is one hell of a weapon for the Bobcats. With Montana State being a top team, it could be the wildcard to keep the NDSU honest. Could he be the game-breaker to keep the Bison’s defense from just suppressing Mellott?
The Montana state offensive line may not be considered as strong as that of the NDSU, but what is the other unit in the FCS? And besides, how many O lines are there of the teams of the group of 5 and even lower level? Not a lot, that’s the answer. But the Bobcats’ O-line can play ball, and their ground production (226 ypg) proves it.
When the state of North Dakota has the ball
The state of North Dakota is a royal pain in the back to prepare. Why? Because everyone can clearly see in the film that deception is not part of the NDSU vocabulary. The Bison is not complicated. They will never try to outdo you.
They don’t have to. So powerful is NDSU’s style of doing things that it falls under that old adage in football: you might know what’s coming, but you have to stop it anyway.
The racing game is exceptional, but what’s new? The offensive line is strong and attacks you in deep waves that no other FCS program has – but what’s new? The passing game is incredibly efficient, but it isn’t essential for the Bison to throw 60 times per game to beat you – but what’s up?
Nothing. They overtake you and win with a few hiccups.
Cam Miller isn’t Trey Lance, Easton Stick or Carson Wentz – his three most recent predecessors who were NFL Draft picks. But try telling semifinal conquest James Madison that (Miller threw two touchdowns as JMU clearly pressed NDSU’s rushing attack. The truth is Miller and NDSU’s passing attack may not rank near the top of the FCS level in passing yards – but the Bison are No.8 in team passing efficiency.
Granted, the Bison would likely prefer not to put themselves in a position of having to go 93 yards in the last minute of the game to claim a comeback victory (as Wentz did in the 2014-15 win at Frisco over the Illinois State). But Miller can deliver a big game here and there, as can fellow 2021 QB Quincy Patterson – who has had great moments in some high-profile P5 games during his time at Virginia Tech.
The racing game? What can we say – it’s # 3 in the FCS and doesn’t even employ one of those heavy, fast triple-option attacks. NDSU’s running game sets the tone with over 32 minutes of possession per game – and in the three playoff wins over Southern Illinois, ETSU, and JMU, he’s been 37:45, 33:24 and 32:31, respectively. . They don’t throttle the clock by playing from a distance as an optional attack; they suck oxygen from the room, continuously punching opponents in the mouth and gut without apologizing.
Full-back Hunter Luepke personifies this NDSU offense. He played a 100-yard rushing game in the semifinals (JMU), where he also caught two touchdown passes. He also ran for 69 yards and one score against ETSU in the quarterfinals. He’s tough, clutch – and he’s just one of the Bison’s many offensive weapons. Just call Luepke the “roll back” option.
The NDSU will meet a Montana state defense that is ranked No.2 in the FCS (behind the NDSU) allowing just 13.4 points per game. The only team that scored more than 20 points over the Bobcats this year was Montana in the Brawl of the Wild (lost 29-10). Even bowl-winning Wyoming couldn’t score 20 (19-16 loss).
But to be fair, even Wyoming in the FBS isn’t as strong as this NDSU team. Concrete example ? NDSU is No. 41 overall in Sagarin Division I (FBS / FCS combined). Wyoming is # 86, while JMU was # 68 and the Bobcats # 89.
Montana State also features the No. 13 ground defense, led by FCS ‘best all-around weapon – Troy Andersen (137 tackles, 14 TFLs, 7 assists). The NFL scouts are licking their chops right now as they search for Andersen. Only one prognosis: he will shine this weekend on national television, whether he wins or loses. He is an absolute player.
This NDSU-Montana State O-vs.-D game will settle this game. If the Bobcats can get a few saves it could get pretty interesting in the fourth quarter.
People, the main thing is it will be fun. And it’s not going to get out of hand both ways. North Dakota State has won eight of the last 10 national title games, but it hasn’t seen a resounding victory since 2015 over Jacksonville State. Four of his last five titles have been interesting in the fourth quarter. This game won’t end at halftime – Montana State is too strong for that.
Montana State Head Coach Brent Vigan is a product of and coached NDSU for several years – and even won a few national title rings as an assistant with the Bison. He knows their ways and has improved on what former head coach Jeff Choate did strong before taking on the defensive coordinator position with the Texas Longhorns last year.
On another side ? NDSU has a lot of players who have gone to Frisco and won against very strong opponents. In fact, seven of NDSU’s starters in December’s semi-final victory over James Madison started in the national title win two years ago this week in Frisco. Several of them even contributed to the victory over East Washington in Frisco three years ago after the 2018 season.
The state of Montana needs the NDSU to return the ball to make this happen. This isn’t usually a big deal for the Bison, but it can still happen in a big football game. If MSU gets two turnovers in a timely manner, it could be very attractive.
Experience will be essential in this one: On the one hand, we have a QB (Tommy Mellott) who had thrown four career passes before December. He’s up against an NDSU team that has guys who won national title rings against EWU on that same pitch in Frisco while Mellott was in his freshman year in high school.
Prediction: North Dakota State 24, Montana State 14
– Written by Brian McLaughlin, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McLaughlin has covered the FCS level since 2015 and is the former National Coordinator of HERO Sports FCS. Prior to HERO Sports, he covered national college football recruiting for The Sporting News – and compiled the PARADE All-America teams from 2010 to 2017. He is co-host on BMac and The Nach’s FCS Podcast every week, currently hosted on several well-known platforms like Spotify, Stitcher, etc. Follow him on twitter @BrianMacWriter or Facebook at www.facebook.com/brianmacwriter.