No. 2 seed Montana hosts unseeded North Dakota State for a Saturday afternoon FCS semifinal game.
What does Montana need to do to reach its first FCS championship game since 2009? Here are five keys for a victory.
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Hold Up In The Trenches For All 4 Quarters
Big Sky defenses have not matched up well with NDSU in the playoffs. Since 2018, NDSU has scored 52, 38, 42, 42, 38, 49, and 35 points on Big Sky squads in the bracket.
While the Big Sky has changed its style of play to have more success in the postseason, NDSU has still been a mismatch in the trenches. Although Montana State went toe-to-toe with NDSU at the line of scrimmage in the second round.
Montana is stout against the run, owning the No. 9 rushing defense (97.2 YPG) and the No. 4 scoring defense (15.8 PPG). Alex Gubner is an elite DT with a scary combination of size, burst, and athleticism. The Grizzlies need to be stout for all four quarters against NDSU. “For all four quarters” is the key.
Many FCS teams in past playoff games have held up against NDSU for 2-3 quarters. It’s that fourth quarter that can sometimes be the difference. Montana prides itself on its conditioning and just playing harder than its opponents to wear them down. That will be put to the ultimate test against an NDSU squad that will still come downhill at you even with an improved passing game to utilize.
Montana needs to control the line of scrimmage offensively as well. The Griz are beat up on the o-line, while NDSU’s d-line seems to be getting stronger every week. Getting a push and keeping Clifton McDowell clean is key, or NDSU can completely take an offense out of rhythm with the DL crashing in.
The Griz have had o-line starters Liam Brown and Chris Walker miss action recently, while starter Hunter Mayginnes has dealt with injury as well and hasn’t played since mid-October.
NDSU’s top DE Dylan Hendricks left last week’s game and didn’t return. Head coach Matt Entz said he’s hopeful Hendricks will be ready for Saturday, but mentioned Hendricks and some others in the locker room are dealing with flu-like symptoms.
Third Down Defense
Cam Miller has been an absolute menace on third downs. Typically, a Bison offense is in trouble when they’re behind the sticks. But even third-and-longs haven’t stopped NDSU from extending drives thanks to Miller’s arm or legs. NDSU’s third down conversion percentage of 0.515 is No. 3 in the FCS.
Montana’s disciplined defense and sound tackling will be key here to get off the field on third downs. Getting caught out of position, not making plays on 50/50 balls, missing tackles in the open field, or not getting the desired pressure on a blitz will spell trouble. Montana’s third down conversion percentage defense of 0.292 is No. 3 in the FCS.
RELATED: 5 Keys For An NDSU Victory
NDSU’s defense is playing its best ball right now, so LSD (long sustained drives) will be difficult. But the Bison have been susceptible to explosive plays at times.
NDSU is solid on defense, but it’s not quite the dominant unit as past teams. It is 22nd in the FCS against the run, 27th against the pass, and 15th in scoring defense. Its PFF grades include 32nd in rush defense, 37th in coverage, and 92nd in tackling.
Grinding NDSU down will be tough. Yet there will be opportunities for big plays, whether it’s Junior Bergen on special teams or offense, Keelan White/Aaron Fontes getting separation, or Clifton McDowell/Eli Gillman finding a crease and making a guy miss in 1-on-1 tackling situations for a big gain.
Calm, Cool Clifton
McDowell is as cool as it gets, so it’s unlikely the stage and atmosphere will get to him. He’ll have to make big-time plays in big-time moments.
Escaping pressure and turning a potential sack into a scramble and 10-yard gain. Picking up a third and medium on a design QB run. Hitting his receiver in stride downfield if he has a step on the defender. Delivering accurate passes in the short/midrange passing game and taking care of the football against a defense that leads the FCS in interceptions (21). Those are winning plays in a playoff bracket, where the margin for error is small, and an inch here or there can be difference-makers.
RELATED: Montana vs. NDSU Tale of the Tape
Since losing 33-16 at SDSU, the Bison have scored 34, 48, 66, 35, and 45 points in their five-game winning streak. They’ve faced adversity during this time, both physical (now three straight road trips this week) and mental (dealing with NIL/transfer portal rumors last week and Matt Entz accepting a new job this week/wondering who the next coach will be). Yet they have kept it rolling.
Montana’s defense is legit. And NDSU may certainly be walking into a buzzsaw of a crowd. But the Bison are still going to get their points. They’re just humming right now. Will it be 35 points? Maybe not. But if NDSU can get to the 24-27 range, can Montana get to 28?
As stated above, there will be opportunities for explosive plays on NDSU’s defense. The Grizzlies need to connect on those (no overthrows on open receivers, no shoestring tackles when there’s space past the tackler, etc.). And finishing drives with seven instead of settling for three is crucial. Just ask Montana State. NDSU’s red zone defense percentage is 0.912 (116th in the FCS), compared to Montana’s red zone offense percentage of 0.833 (40th).
When Montana gets inside the 30, it needs to be thinking TDs and not FGs.