The last score prediction of the 2021 FCS season is in. At 90-48 overall but on a two-game losing streak, let’s see how well this analysis and prediction ages in a few days.
No. 8 Montana State vs. No. 2 NDSU
Championship-level football will be on display Saturday in Frisco, Texas. Not just due to the obvious of NDSU and MSU being the two teams competing for a title, but because of their style of play. The Bison and the Bobcats have the championship formula down, in more ways than one.
The storylines are endless. Whether it’s MSU head coach Brent Vigen being a former NDSU player and coach, winning three national titles with the Bison as their offensive coordinator. Or MSU making strides as a program in recent years, only to run into NDSU in the 2018 and 2019 playoffs and realize the gap is still significant. Or the storyline of NDSU’s dynasty and if it will ever end as long as the Bison are in the FCS, and if a blueblood program like MSU is ready to step up and challenge NDSU.
The last two teams NDSU lost to (SHSU in the spring playoffs and SDSU earlier this season) are the two teams MSU beat in the quarterfinals and semifinals. The Bobcats are playing at a different level right now. They hammered the defending champs SHSU, who in hindsight was over-ranked and over-seeded this season, but a team I still thought was super talented. That result spoke more about the Bobcats than the Bearkats, in my opinion. MSU beat the Jackrabbits in the semifinals with an incredibly well-played second half. SDSU is a team I thought was among the very best in the FCS.
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MSU is better equipped to match up with NDSU this season compared to previous bouts. The Bobcats have more depth on defense, have become more physical and disruptive on the defensive line, and have the best defensive player in the FCS patrolling the middle with linebacker Troy Andersen, who did not play in the 2019 playoffs. Offensively, freshman sensation Tommy Mellott has been a difference-maker at quarterback since taking over as the starter at the beginning of the postseason. He’s added the element of making teams defend the QB run to go along with All-American RB Isaiah Ifanse and big, athletic outside weapons at receiver.
The Bobcats are built like NDSU. Which means they will try to out-Bison the Bison.
And that’s an incredibly tough task.
This Bison defense is playing at arguably an all-time high. If MSU wants offensive success, Mellott is going to need a massive day running the ball. It’s hard to see the o-line getting that good of a push to get Ifanse going, if the standout RB does play. The Bobcats were able to take advantage of SHSU and SDSU with fade routes, but those are the No. 1 weaknesses on those teams. The Bison cornerbacks are coming off of their best game of the season, holding JMU and its explosive passing attack to 14 points.
The Bison match up well to bottle up Ifanse and contain the WRs. So I think Mellott will have to carry the ball 30ish times and continue to gain chunk yardage like he’s done all postseason. And hey, there has to be a Troy Andersen package somewhere in the playbook to get the 2018 All-American offensive player the ball if the Bobcats have a hard time sustaining drives.
NDSU has had problems in the past defending the QB run. Mellott has the ability to run with power, turn nothing into something and keep the offense on schedule, and also break off a big run. The Bison defense is No. 3 in rushing defense, though, allowing just 82.7 yards per game.
I don’t know if MSU can get into the mid to late-20s on this Bison defense. And actually, I don’t know if NDSU’s offense can get into the upper-20s either. But I have a little more confidence in the Bison offensively.
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I expect a heavy dose of Hunter Luepke running the ball. With Christian Watson sidelined these playoffs and younger WRs not stepping up, Luepke leaking out of the backfield and catching passes downfield was the difference in NDSU beating JMU 20-14. You can bet the Bobcats won’t lose track of where Luepke is, no matter where he is lined up.
Watson is questionable to play Saturday. His presence is important in keeping a defense from stacking the box. Regardless of if Watson plays, I think NDSU’s best game plan is to feed Luepke with at least 25 carries. Guys like Kobe Johnson or TaMerik Williams may not get going much against this physical and stout MSU defense. But Luepke is a battering ram and NDSU’s most effective weapon in staying ahead on down-and-distances. If the Bison o-line that features two All-Americans on it can get even a slight push in the trenches, Luepke will have himself a day if he gets enough touches.
Mixing in some play-action passes from Cam Miller, who looked sharp in the semifinals, and I think NDSU has enough offensively to get into the 20s. This may not be a vaunted offense like past teams, but the Bison have traditionally drawn up one or two scoring plays in the three weeks leading up to the championship game where afterward, the coaches and players say they saw it on film — like the fake field goal or the Easton Stick to Darrius Shepherd deep TD throw in the past games against JMU. Expect NDSU to have something up its sleeve thanks to weeks of preparation.
I also think NDSU has the edge in special teams, notably the return game. Field position will be massive in this defensive battle where possessions will be limited.
Lastly, how does one pick against the Bison in Frisco? Yes, this year’s team may not be the juggernaut like the 2013, 2018, or 2019 teams. But NDSU has played its best football of the season in the playoffs. As Vigen put it, “They’re the type of team that you have to beat, they’re not going to beat themselves.” This matchup favors NDSU. And if the Bison play mistake-free football and continue to be fundamentally sound in their tackling and not let Mellott get yards after contact, they should be raising yet another FCS trophy in front of thousands of NDSU fans.
Prediction: NDSU 24-17
Spring 2021: 53-25
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