It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It wasn’t supposed to be this easy.
One of the key matchups of Saturday’s FCS national championship game in soggy conditions in Frisco, Texas, that figured to be a fierce battle never materialized.
It marked North Dakota State’s rushing attack that ranked third in the nation with 273.6 yards per game (including the playoffs) against star linebacker Troy Anderson and a Montana State rush defense that ranked 13th (107.4 yards allowed per game).
Unexpectedly, the Bison’s bruising offensive front managed to wear down its opponent earlier than usual, nearly rushing for their season average in the first half alone and finishing with 380 yards for the game in a convincing 38-10 victory that marked NDSU’s ninth title in 11 years.
It was the most rushing yards by a team in the championship game since Georgia Southern set the all-time record with 638 against Youngstown State on Dec. 18, 1999.
“It’s just awesome to finally achieve your goal than you’ve had for so long,” said fullback Hunter Luepke, who was named the game’s most outstanding player after a career high-tying three-touchdown effort.
That’s because the Bison have had to hold on to that goal for longer than they’re used to after the 2020 season was pushed to the spring and NDSU lost at Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals on May 2.
Though NDSU used the ground game to put the game away, senior wideout Christian Watson’s (four catches, 61 yards) provided an early spark in his first action of the postseason. In his return from injury, the Bison’s leading receiver on the season had three catches for 46 yards on some key drive-extending plays in the first half to help loosen up the Bobcats defense.
Quarterback Quincy Patterson’s 34-yard snap-and-go set up the first of Luepke’s touchdowns that put NDSU up to stay with 6:48 left in the first quarter. And Kobe Johnson’s 76-yard sprint left Montana State in a 21-0 hole with 10:50 remaining in the opening half.
Center Jalen Sundell, left tackle Cody Mauch, right guard Jake Kubas, right tackle Cordell Volson and left guard Nash Jensen provided the sometimes gaping holes up front as the Bison ended up with 268 rushing yards in the first half alone.
“It’s a tone-setter when you have an offensive line like we do,” NDSU coach Matt Entz said. “We want to lead the country in physicality and when you have a back like (Luepke), it sure helps.”
It certainly helped NDSU’s cause when Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott went down with an ankle injury and did not return for the second series of the game. The freshman quarterback, who took over under center to start the playoffs, had totaled 11 touchdowns (six rushing, four passing, one receiving) without an interception while gaining 861 total yards in three wins.
“I think it definitely changed us,” said Bobcats coach Brent Vigen, who was a former assistant coach at NDSU. “But it had to be a next-man up mentality. (Backup) Tucker Rovig came in and did what he could to compete, but we got beat on both sides of the ball today.”
In the second half, NDSU continued to keep Montana State honest with the occasional shot through the air. And Cam Miller found tight end Josh Babicz for a 35-yard touchdown that made it 35-0 early in the third quarter before Jake Reinholz capped the scoring with a 37-yard field goal at the end of the quarter.
But when it was all said and done, Johnson (four rushes, 106 yards, TD), Patterson (11 carries, 99 yards) and Luepke (14 rushes, 82 yards, 3 TDs) all finished with at least 80 yards on the ground and TaMerik Williams added 58 yards on nine carries.
“Once they got the ball rolling, it was really difficult to stop,” Vigen added.