North Dakota State is on the hunt for its ninth FCS championship since 2011. The Bison’s opponent, Montana State, eyes its first Division 1-AA/ national title since 1984.
What does NDSU need to do to continue its historic run of titles? Besides the obvious of winning the line of scrimmage, turnovers, time of possession, etc., here are five keys for a Bison victory:
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Limit Yards After Contact For Mellott
Tommy Mellott, the MSU freshman QB who’s taken the FCS by storm, rushed for 180 yards and two TDs against UT Martin (23 attempts), 76 yards and two TDs against Sam Houston (17 attempts), and 155 yards and two TDs against South Dakota State (34 attempts).
With All-American Isaiah Ifanse sidelined due to knee pain in the semis, Mellott carried the load. Ifanse is questionable for Saturday, and he’d be less than 100 percent if he did play. Long story short, Mellott is likely going to have at least 20 carries.
“Their ability to defend him, I think whether they had three weeks or one week, North Dakota State will do a really good job of planning for him,” MSU head coach Brent Vigen said. “We need to get as many of our guys back to complement him, but understand we’re in a one-game mode right now and we’re going to do whatever it takes to win the football game.”
Mellott can make guys miss and has solid open-field speed, but he also runs with power despite being 6-foot and 195 pounds. His ability to pick up tough yardage to extend drives was especially key against the Jackrabbits. The Bison will need to be fundamentally sound in their tackling and not let Mellott get yards after contact.
“We played some quarterbacks throughout the years that have been big threats running the football,” NDSU HC Matt Entz said. “There’s been some South Dakota State teams that have really taken advantage of the quarterback run game against us. We’re trying to do our best job making sure we take away what they’re good at, and that’s what you want to do as a defense.”
A Clean Pocket
NDSU QB Cam Miller has been operating efficiently and getting more comfortable with each start in his young career. But he hasn’t been asked to throw the ball more than 20 times yet this postseason. His numbers may not wow you, although the Bison haven’t needed star QB play this year. They own the No. 1 scoring defense in the FCS, the No. 3 rushing offense, and are No. 8 in team passing efficiency.
MSU showed how stout it is against the run in the second half of the semifinals against SDSU, one of the better running teams in the FCS. For NDSU to win Saturday, Miller will have to be sharp and make plays with his arm. The Bison run a lot of play-action, which timing is key. The Bobcats have elite disrupters across the defensive line, led by Daniel Hardy (16 sacks and 23 TFLs). The NDSU o-line will be tasked with establishing the run but also keeping Miller clean and on rhythm.
“On the defensive side, they’re going to play a bunch of single-high defense, some interior pressure, and then I think Coach Banks does an outstanding job on third down being really creative in some of his looks and some of his pressure, especially getting quarterbacks off their spot and making them uncomfortable,” Entz said.
Pass-Catchers Step Up
NDSU All-American WR Christian Watson has missed the entire playoffs due to a hamstring injury. With the number of weeks he’s been sidelined, the three-week break, and the fact he warmed up in full pads in the semifinals, Watson will likely give it a go Saturday for his final collegiate game. How healthy he is and effective he is … we’ll find out. Watson was a different-level athlete against MSU in the 2019 semis, scoring back-to-back long TDs to break the game open.
With no Watson, FB/RB/TE Hunter Luepke has been NDSU’s best option as a pass-catcher. He had the most catches for NDSU against JMU, hauling in three passes for 89 yards and two TDs. Tight end Josh Babicz was the top pass-catcher in the quarterfinals, catching just three passes for 49 yards against ETSU. In the second round, TE Noah Gindorff was the most productive, catching three passes for 35 yards before suffering a season-ending injury.
Not exactly a lot of explosiveness coming from the wide receivers and tight ends.
MSU would need to have a bad defensive breakdown if it allowed Luepke to be wide open down the field like JMU did. The Bison will have to make plays downfield, though, as MSU is strong against the run. Someone, whether it’s Watson or another WR, will need to step up to make those plays.
Feed The Beast
As stated above, the chances of Luepke having a big receiving day isn’t big. MSU will be sure to take that away. However, stopping him in the running game is a different animal.
NDSU’s o-line, while among the best in the FCS, may not gash MSU up front like it did in 2019. But even a slight push is enough for Luepke’s bruising style to turn runs blocked for two yards into eight-yard gains. Giving him the ball 20-plus times looks like NDSU’s best bet to move the ball on the ground, especially because MSU’s linebackers are arguably better playing sideline-to-sideline rather than stuffing A-gap power.
“They have a really unique guy in Hunter Luepke in that position right now,” Vigen said. “Maybe as unique as that’s been in that program. His ability to play fullback, to play the position he’s listed at, he’s really talented there. Both his blocking ability and catching ability, but I think it’s when they put him back at tailback and give him the ball, that’s such a rare combination.”
Big Play On Special Teams
In an expected defensive battle, field position will be huge. MSU has been overall solid on special teams, but it was atrocious in its lone FCS loss at Montana.
The Bison do have the edge in the return game. Jayden Price is one of the better punt returners in the FCS, ranking No. 6 with 13.3 yards per return. Christian Watson and RaJa Nelson are both over 23 yards per kick return, which is in the Top 30. Watson was an All-American KR in the spring, although his hamstring injury makes it questionable if he’d be back there Saturday.
Flipping the field on a return, a blocked punt, or perhaps a fake could be the difference in a potential one-score game.
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