FCS Championship Game Preview and Prediction: Montana State vs. North Dakota State
At least Montana State can say its first-year head coach Brent Vigen was an assistant at North Dakota State for the first eight seasons of the Bison’s amazing streak of 36 straight wins since 2006 when they’re coming off an open week in the schedule.
Otherwise, that statistic looms large over Saturday’s NCAA Division I FCS championship game in Frisco, Texas, where NDSU will have had three weeks of preparation since the semifinal round as it tries to beat Montana State and increase its record total of eight FCS national titles – all since 2011. (Here are 10 numbers to know before the FCS championship game)
Vigen was the offensive coordinator on NDSU’s first three FCS title teams (2011-13) before he followed former Bison coach Craig Bohl to Wyoming, and now he has the Bobcats feeling ready to topple the dynasty. His squad has dispatched the two spring national finalists, champion Sam Houston and runner-up South Dakota State, along the Road to Frisco.
Here’s a capsule preview of the 44th championship game:
No. 8 Seed Montana State (12-2, 7-1 Big Sky) vs. No. 2 Seed North Dakota State (13-1, 7-1 MVFC)
Kickoff – Noon EST Saturday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas (ESPN2)
Series – Montana State leads 21-15 (last meeting: North Dakota State won 42-14 in an FCS semifinal on Dec. 21, 2019 in Fargo)
Point Spread – North Dakota State -7.5
Coaches – Montana State: Brent Vigen (12-2, one season); North Dakota State: Matt Entz (37-4, three seasons)
5 Players to Watch – Montana State: QB Tommy Mellott (26 of 50, 461 yards, 4 TDs; 110 carries, 705 yards, 10 TDs), RB Isaiah Ifanse (262 carries, 1,539 yards, 10 TDs), LT Lewis Kidd (All-Big Sky first team, 47 consecutive starts), DE Daniel Hardy (71 tackles, 23 TFLs, 16 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), MLB Troy Andersen (137 tackles, 14 TFLs, 3 takeaways, 7 pass breakups); North Dakota State: QB Cam Miller (94 of 139, 1,318 yards, 13 TDs, 3 INTs; 60 carries, 239 yards, 4 TDs), FB Hunter Luepke (73 carries, 461 yards, 5 TDs; 3 TD receptions), RT Cordell Volson (three-time All-MVFC first team; 64 career games, 40 starts), LB Jackson Hankey (93 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries), S Michael Tutsie (79 tackles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 INT, 3 pass breakups)
5 Key Factors – 1. Which defense will be stingier? North Dakota State (11.2) and Montana State (13.4) rank 1 and 2, respectively, in the 128-member FCS in fewest points allowed per game. NDSU is outstanding against the run, allowing just 82.7 yards per game (No. 3 in FCS), while MSU’s 4-2-5 defensive base is strong against the pass (15 sacks and seven INTs in last four games), likely aligned to match Luepke, TE Josh Babicz and the potential return of WR Christian Watson (39 receptions, 740 yards, seven TDs) from a hamstring injury. 2. With that said, the Bobcats must first contain NDSU’s diverse run attack, which ranks No. 3 in the FCS in rushing yards per game (273.6). The ‘Cats are enjoying their best four-game stretch of the season, allowing just 313 net rushing yards and two TDs, and that includes against three playoff opponents that had a 1,000-yard rusher. Since the beginning of their first FCS championship season in 2011, the Bison are 129-1 when they have 162 or more rushing yards and 19-11 when below that mark. 3. While Mellott has accounted for 11 touchdowns in his first three starts – all in the playoffs after he replaced Matthew McKay – NDSU has benefitted from the extra time to prepare for him, so an effective return of Ifanse from a knee injury is vital for the Bobcats. 4. The Bison’s general mind-set is they won’t get beat by field goals, but both teams are in the top 11 of the FCS in red zone defense, so if drives bog down, making field goals could prove huge. MSU’s Blake Gessner (19 of 24, 53 long) has displayed deeper range than NDSU’s Jake Reinholz (15 of 20, 46 long). 5. In a close game, both teams will need to make winning plays in the fourth quarter. NDSU has the FCS’ best point differential in the fourth (+91) and allowed just 2.1 points on average (also No. 1 in the FCS), giving up zero in three playoff wins. Montana State has allowed only seven fourth-quarter points in three playoff wins and is +63 for the season (fourth-best nationally).
Plus, the X-Factor – COVID-19 is a concern for the championship teams. Throughout the recent national surge of positive cases, five bowls were canceled and several others changed a team on the FBS level.
Prediction – With both teams outstanding along the line of scrimmage – offensively and defensively – it will be fun to watch the play calling. Will there be a new wrinkle or two? North Dakota State 24, Montana State 13.
Graphic by Matt Sisneros.