No. 2 seed North Dakota State, winners of eight FCS national titles from 2011-2019, and No. 8 seed Montana State, advancing to its first FCS/Division 1-AA title game since 1984, meet up in the national championship on Jan. 8 in Frisco, Texas.
This is the third fall season in a row these two programs square off. The Bison beat MSU 52-10 in the 2018 second round and 42-14 in the 2019 semifinals. The Bobcats did not play in the 2021 spring season while the Bison were knocked out of the quarterfinals by eventual national champs Sam Houston.
The last two teams NDSU has lost to (SHSU in the spring and South Dakota State on Nov. 6) are the two teams MSU beat in the quarterfinals (42-19 at SHSU) and semifinals (31-17 vs. SDSU).
The Bobcats are led by first-year head coach Brent Vigen. Vigen is a North Dakota native, played at NDSU in the mid-1990s, and was on the coaching staff from 1998-2013, winning three national titles from 2011-2013 as the offensive coordinator.
NDSU is currently a 7.5-point favorite on BetMGM with the total points at 42.5.
Here’s how the matchup looks heading into the 11 a.m. CT game on ESPN2.
MSU’s Offense vs. NDSU’s Defense
Just three starts into his career, the legend of Touchdown Tommy Mellott is rolling. The in-state freshman QB from Butte has led MSU, a program yearning for good QB play for years, on a historic playoff run. After a disappointing showing in a 29-10 loss at rival Montana to end the regular season, the Bobcats made a QB change in the two weeks leading up to the second-round game. That led to Matthew McKay, who helped the Bobcats to a 9-2 regular-season record, entering the transfer portal two days before the UT Martin game.
But MSU’s offense has hit a new gear with Mellott behind center. The dual-threat QB is a strong runner despite being 6-foot and 195 pounds, and he’s looking better throwing the ball with each start. Against UT Martin on a windy day, Mellott went 8-of-20 for 51 yards and had 23 carries for 180 yards and two TDs. At SHSU, he went 6-of-11 for 165 yards and two TDs along with 76 rushing yards and another two TDs on 17 carries plus a four-yard TD catch. And vs. SDSU, Mellott went 10-of-15 for 233 yards and two TDs and ran 34 times for 155 yards and two scores.
To do the math, that’s four TD passes, six rushing TDs, and one receiving TD in three playoff starts.
Defending the QB run has been the Achilles Heel for NDSU’s defense at times during its dynasty run. Guys like Tre Roberson, Bryan Schor, Taryn Christion, and Eric Barriere have had success as mobile QBs against the Bison. This season’s defense has been on another level, though, owning the No. 1 FCS scoring defense (11.21 PPG) and the No. 3 rushing defense (82.7 YPG). Brayden Thomas is a HERO Sports Third Team All-American and Eli Mostaert is a Sophomore AA on NDSU’s defensive line. The two have combined for 24.5 TFLs and 16.5 sacks. Michael Tutsie is a First Team All-American at safety while veteran middle linebacker Jackson Hankey leads the team with 93 total tackles.
The Bobcats are scoring 30.0 PPG (35th in the FCS) and have the No. 7 rushing offense (225.5 YPG). A big reason Mellott had 34 carries against SDSU was due to Second Team AA RB Isaiah Ifanse being sidelined with a knee injury. Ifanse played in all 13 games leading up to the semifinals and has the third-most rushing yards in the FCS with 1,539. Vigen said there’s “a real possibility” Ifanse could be back for the title game.
If Ifanse can’t go, Mellott would likely have to carry the rushing load again. MSU’s No. 2 RB is Elijah Elliott, who only has 61 carries for 315 yards in 13 games this season. The Bobcats want to establish the run behind an o-line that goes 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, 6-foot-1 and 292 pounds, 6-foot and 285 pounds, 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, and 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds. Lewis Kidd is a Second Team All-American left tackle, and Taylor Tuiasosopo is a four-year starter and a Second Team All-Big Sky selection at right guard this season.
Moving the ball on the ground vs. NDSU may not be met with consistent success. The Bison have allowed more than 100 yards rushing to an opponent only three times this year, and no team has been able to surpass 200 rushing yards. MSU keeps defenses honest with Mellott connecting on deep throws outside of the hashes. Six-foot-3 Lance McCutcheon is having a helluva season with 56 catches for 1,015 yards and seven TDs. NDSU ranks 11th defending the pass (177.0 YPG). The Bison are coming off of a semifinal performance where they held an explosive James Madison passing attack to its fourth-lowest receiving total of the year (210 yards).
The secondary is assisted by a pass rush that has the second-most sacks in the FCS (49) and the fourth-most sacks per game (3.5). MSU ranks 26th with 1.43 sacks allowed per game.
For MSU to have offensive success, the o-line needs four quarters of its most physical football, the WRs must continue winning 50-50 balls, and Mellott has to keep extending drives with his legs, whether it be finding that small crease, breaking tackles, or carrying the pile a couple of extra yards to move the chains.
NDSU’s offense resembles the units at the start of this run of national titles, so Vigen may be having some deja vu as he flips on the tape.
The Bison are scoring 33.8 PPG, ranking 14th in the FCS. Their rushing attack has been dominant, especially lately. NDSU is averaging 273.6 YPG on the ground, which is No. 3 behind the option offenses of Davidson and Kennesaw State. NDSU will face a stiff test against the No. 2 scoring defense. The Bobcats allow just 13.43 PPG. Their elite front seven allows 107.9 rushing YPG (13th) and ranks 22nd with 6.8 TFLs a game and 10th with 3.14 sacks per game.
NDSU’s o-line features two All-Americans. Cordell Volson (6-foot-7 and 313 pounds) is a First Team AA who has played at right tackle and right guard. Cody Mauch (6-foot-6 and 301 pounds) is a Third Team AA left tackle. MSU’s d-line features two All-Americans. DE Daniel Hardy (6-foot-3 and 240 pounds) is a First Team AA and has racked up 71 total tackles, 23 TFLs, 16 sacks, and nine QB hurries. DT Chase Benson (6-foot-4 and 285 pounds) is a Third Team AA with 41 tackles, eight TFLs, 3.5 sacks, and four QB hurries.
Benson has dealt with a bad back all season and missed the semifinal game. His status for the title game is unknown, although Vigen described it the same as Ifanse with “a real possibility” that Benson could play. Also in that possibility mix is DB Ty Okada, a third standout player that didn’t play against SDSU. Okada is No. 3 on the team with 72 tackles.
NDSU’s rushing attack got a boost in the second half of the season when SMU transfer RB TaMerik Williams settled into a more prominent role, although the Bison still rotate plenty at that position. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder rushed for two TDs in each of the final two regular-season games and first two playoff contests. It was the Hunter Luepke show in the semifinals, though. The 6-foot-1, 236-pound First Team All-American fullback is also used at the RB position. After a breakout spring season, his touches have been limited as he’s battled some injuries with his bruising running style. Against JMU, Luepke ran 19 times for 110 yards while catching three passes for 89 yards and two TDs.
The Bobcats held SDSU’s two standout RBs Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis in check during the second half of the semis. First Team All-American middle linebacker Troy Andersen was everywhere, as he’s been all year. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds with exceptional speed, Andersen is a Top 3 finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award. He has 137 tackles, 14 TFLs, two sacks, two interceptions, and seven pass breakups this season. The Bobcats also get great LB play out of veteran Callahan O’Reilly (85 tackles).
Like MSU, the Bison replaced their Power 5 transfer starting QB with a younger player. True sophomore Cam Miller, who also took over as the starter in the spring, stepped into the QB1 role again midseason. He replaced Quincy Patterson, who is still used in packages at 6-foot-3 and 246 pounds and has the ability to run the ball and throw it deep. Miller may not be an All-American like an Easton Stick or a Trey Lance, but he continues to take more command of the offense and executes what is asked of him. Miller was sharp against JMU, going 10-of-19 for 165 yards and two TDs. He was not helped by some drops from young WRs.
Luepke being the top pass-catcher vs. JMU is a product of his versatility, but also because the Bison have been without Third Team All-American TE Noah Gindorff and First Team All-American WR Christian Watson for most of these playoffs. Gindorff had surgery on a lower-leg injury and is out, while Watson is hampered by a hamstring injury. He dressed and warmed up in the semis, but was in street clothes by kickoff. Watson has a chance to play in Frisco with the three-week break.
The Bison don’t have many proven WRs behind Watson who have been consistently reliable. Then again, NDSU ranking 110th with 152.6 passing YPG has been fine because of its tremendous running game. The Bison had to be more balanced vs. JMU, rushing for 174 yards and throwing for 165 yards. MSU’s and JMU’s defenses are similar statistically – JMU is No. 20 and MSU is No. 21 against the pass. JMU is No. 8 and MSU is No. 13 against the run. They’ll need to be balanced again in Texas.
Cam Miller has a 13:3 TD-to-INT ratio this season. MSU is tied for fourth in the FCS with 18 team interceptions.
For NDSU to have offensive success, the Bison need to get the upper hand in the trenches, keep Miller clean and on rhythm in their lethal play-action game, and have a pass-catcher step up and make a play downfield when they get their opportunity to.
NDSU’s Jake Reinholz is 15-20 on field goals with a long of 46 yards. Kaedin Steindorf averages 40.1 yards per punt and has 17 inside the 20-yard line. MSU’s Blake Glessner is 19-24 on field goals with a long of 54 yards. Bryce Leighton averages 41.1 yards per punt with 19 inside the 20-yard line.
Sam’s coverage of the FCS began in 2012 as the sports editor and eventual editor-in-chief of NDSU’s The Spectrum. After graduating in 2015, he spent three years in the newspaper and magazine industry while starting his work for HERO Sports in the fall of 2016 as a freelancer. In May 2018, he joined the website full time as the Senior FCS Analyst.