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Stan Becton | | January 6, 2022

The path to the FCS championship for North Dakota State and Montana State

FCS championship preview: A closer look at Montana State vs. North Dakota State

After a wild 2021 season, FCS football will crown a champion when Montana State and North Dakota State battle Saturday afternoon. As the Bobcats and Bison near the pinnacle of the sport, let's take a look back at their journeys.

Montana State Bobcats

Regular season

After not playing in fall 2020 or spring 2021, Montana State returned to the gridiron this fall after a year's absence. On the field, the Bobcats had a successful 9-2 season, ranking as high as third in the FCS Coaches Poll. Montana State won nine straight games during the season, good for a second-place finish in the Big Sky. The Bobcats also lost to FBS Wyoming by only 3 points.

FCS playoffs

In the playoffs, Montana State earned the eighth seed. The Bobcats hosted UT Martin in the second round, winning that game despite a playoff quarterback change. Montana State played Sam Houston in the quarterfinals and routed the reigning champions 42-19 to end a 22-game win streak.

THE BIG GAME: Follow the 2021 FCS national championship game this Saturday 

Semifinal round

After taking out the defending national champions, Montana State took out the defending runner-up, South Dakota State, in the semifinal round. Faced with numerous injuries, true freshman quarterback Tommy Mellot led the charge, accounting for 384 total yards and four total touchdowns. The Montana State defense shut down the elite South Dakota State running back tandem, limiting the Jackrabbits to 124 rushing yards. 

After a great all-around performance on both sides of the ball, Montana State clinched its first FCS title game appearance since 1984.

Opponent Win/Loss Score Ranking record
@ Wyoming (FBS) L 19-16 11 0-1
Drake W 45-7 13 1-1
San Diego W 52-10 13 2-1
@ Portland State W 30-17 12 3-1
Northern Colorado W 40-7 12 4-1
Cal Poly W 45-7 11 5-1
@ No. 18 Weber State W 13-7 9 6-1
Idaho State W 27-9 6 7-1
@ No. 5 Eastern Washington W 23-20 4 8-1
Idaho W 20-13 3 9-1
@ No. 7 Montana L 29-10 3 9-2
UT Martin (FCS Second Round) W 26-7 8 seed 10-2
No. 1 Sam Houston (FCS Quarterfinals) W 42-19 8 seed 11-2
South Dakota State (FCS Semifinals) W 31-17 8 seed 12-2

OLD FRIENDS: How Montana State coach Brent Vigen looks to end FCS title drought vs. alma mater

Key players this season

  • QB Tommy Mellott
  • RB Isaiah Ifanse
  • WR Lance McCutcheon
  • DT Chase Benson
  • DE Daniel Hardy
  • LB Troy Andersen
  • S Ty Okada
  • S Tre Webb

While quarterback Tommy Mellott gets most of the headlines, Montana State's backfield could get a boost from the return of running back Isaiah Ifanse. After missing the FCS semifinal round, Ifanse may return thanks to three weeks to heal up. Elsewhere on offense, wide receiver Lance McCutcheon has over 1,000 receiving yards this season and is a legitimate threat on the outside.

Linebacker Troy Andersen leads the Bobcat defense as a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award (FCS defensive player of the year). The dominant defensive line pairing of Chase Benson and Daniel Hardy joins Andersen on defense. The duo sets the tone for the Montana State front seven on a defense full of great players.

Montana State coach Brent Vigen on preparing for FCS championship vs. North Dakota State

North Dakota State Bison

Regular season

North Dakota State finished the regular season with a 10-1 record, earning the automatic qualifier from the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Bison won every game except their rivalry matchup in the Dakota Marker. However, North Dakota State still beat four ranked opponents during the regular season.

DYNASTY: 11 numbers to know about North Dakota State football's historic run

FCS playoffs

North Dakota State's regular season success earned the Bison the second overall seed in the FCS playoffs, guaranteeing the Bison home-field through the semifinal round. The Bison defeated an MVFC foe, Southern Illinois, in the second round before handling ETSU in the quarterfinals. North Dakota State outscored its first two playoff opponents by 55 points thanks to a dominant rushing attack that gained 667 yards and scored nine touchdowns.

Semifinal round

In the semifinal round, North Dakota State won a close contest against James Madison 20-14. Fullback Hunter Luepke led the offense with almost 200 total yards of offense and two touchdowns. While James Madison rallied late, a remarkable one-handed interception by defensive back Destin Talbert helped seal the Bison victory.

One-handed pick in end zone sends North Dakota State to the FCS national championship

👀: 5 players to watch in the 2021 FCS championship game

Opponent Win/Loss Score Ranking record
Albany W 28-6 3 1-0
Valparaiso W 64-0 4 2-0
@ Towson W 35-7 4 3-0
No. 11 North Dakota W 16-10 5 4-0
No. 12 Northern Iowa W 34-20 5 5-0
@ Illinois State W 20-0 3 6-0
No. 18 Missouri State W 27-20 3 7-0
Indiana State W 44-2 2 8-0
No. 12 South Dakota State L 27-19 2 8-1
@ Youngstown State W 49-17 6 9-1
No. 16 South Dakota W 52-24 4 10-1
Southern Illinois (FCS Second Round) W 38-7 2 seed 11-1
No. 7 ETSU (FCS Quarterfinals) W 27-3 2 seed 12-1
No. 3 James Madison (FCS Semifinals) W 20-14 2 seed 13-1

Key players this season

  • QB Cam Miller
  • RB TaMerik Williams
  • FB Hunter Luepke
  • WR Christian Watson
  • RT Cordell Volson
  • DE Brayden Thomas
  • S Michael Tutsie

Running back TaMerik Williams leads the Bison in rushing thanks to players like Luepke and future NFL draft pick Cordell Volson clearing holes up front. North Dakota State led the nation in rushing among all offenses that didn't run the triple-option attack, averaging 273.6 per game on the ground.

On defense, Michael Tutsie earned All-American honors for the top scoring defense in the FCS after accumulating 63 tackles during the regular season. North Dakota State allows only 11.2 points and 259.7 yards per game.

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