A chance to compete for an FCS national championship is on the line when No. 8 seed Montana State hosts South Dakota State on Saturday.
This is the first time a No. 8 seed has reached the semifinals since the bracket expanded to 24 teams in 2013. Montana State hosts a semifinal game for the first time since 1984, which is also the last time the Bobcats appeared in the FCS/Division 1-AA title game, beating Louisiana Tech for the program’s only national title in this subdivision. MSU is in the semifinals for the second fall season in a row.
SDSU looks to be just the second unseeded team in the 24-team bracket to reach the national title game. Youngstown State did so in 2016. The Jackrabbits advanced to the 2017 and 2018 semifinals and played in the spring championship game, narrowly losing to Sam Houston. But they have never played for a title in the fall and have never won a national championship.
Here’s how the matchup looks heading into the 1 p.m. CT game on ESPN2.
RELATED: NDSU vs. JMU Preview
MSU’s Offense vs. SDSU’s Defense
Montana State’s offense has looked rejuvenated since freshman Tommy Mellott took over as QB1 to start the playoffs. When Matthew McKay, who led the Bobcats to a 9-2 regular-season record, entered the transfer portal two days before the second-round game vs. UT Martin, it sent initial shockwaves around the FCS. But then reports stated the coaching staff made the switch to start Mellott, followed by McKay’s decision to leave the team.
Mellott, the pride of Butte and the 2019 Montana Gatorade Player of the Year, has that “it’ factor about him. Used as a running QB throughout this season, Mellott ran for 190 yards and two scores against UT Martin in his first career collegiate start. He went just 8-of-20 passing for 51 yards on a windy day. In the quarterfinal win at No. 1 Sam Houston, the 6-foot and 195-pounder went 6-of-11 passing for 165 yards and two TDs, rushed 17 times for 76 yards and two TDs, and also caught a four-yard TD.
After noticeable regression offensively down the stretch of the regular season, Mellott’s play has given the Bobcats a different dimension as a playmaker. Along with RB Isaiah Ifanse (No. 3 in the FCS with 1,539 yards rushing), 6-foot-3 WR Lance McCutcheon (1,015 receiving yards), and a big offensive line led by veterans Lewis Kidd and Taylor Tuiasosopo, the Bobcats are playing their best offensive football of the season after scoring 42 points on SHSU, raising their season average to 29.9 PPG.
Establishing the run against one of the best front sevens in the FCS will be a challenging task for MSU. The Jacks allow 105.1 rushing yards per game, ranking 11th in the FCS. They also own the No. 15 scoring defense (18.9 PPG). SDSU is big and physical across the d-line and has the rare FCS ability to rotate with little to no dropoff. Caleb Sanders leads the way on the interior with 12 TFLs and 6.5 sacks this season. Reece Winkelman is a veteran DE with 12.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks.
Adam Bock has quickly become a top linebacker in the FCS. The sophomore has racked up 119 tackles, nine TFLs, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, and eight passes defended. Logan Backhaus was an All-American during the spring season and has been slowed down with injuries, but he has had three of his better games this season in the playoffs.
SDSU is more gettable through the air than on the ground. The Jacks allow 241.6 passing yards a game, which ranks 86th in the FCS. Look for MSU to test SDSU deep downfield on some fade routes like it did against Sam Houston, and like Villanova did against SDSU with some first-half success.
SDSU’s Offense vs. MSU’s Defense
The Bobcats have been fantastic defensively this season and have the No. 2 FCS scoring defense (13.2 PPG). SDSU can attack a defense in multiple ways and is scoring 37.5 PPG, ranking No. 8.
The o-line for the Jackrabbits is playing like the best unit in the FCS right now. In their three playoff wins, the last two coming on the road on opposite sides of the country, the Jacks have rushed for 446 yards against UC Davis, 205 yards at Sac State, and 266 yards at Villanova. Pierre Strong Jr., a projected mid-round 2022 NFL Draft pick, leads the FCS with 1,592 yards rushing to go along with 17 TDs on the ground. He did miss the last three quarters against Nova. Strong took what looked like a routine hit, but got up and jogged off as he waved to the sideline. He did not re-enter and reportedly was in concussion protocol. His status for this weekend is unknown.
If Strong can’t go, Isaiah Davis is arguably an even more effective runner. After missing most of the regular season with an injury, the sophomore who gained stardom with his big spring playoff runs has rushed for 217 yards, 108 yards, and 174 yards in the three postseason games with a combined six TDs. He can carry the load, but not having that 1-2 punch is not ideal against a strong MSU defense.
While SDSU’s rushing attack gets a ton of praise, transfer QB Chris Oladokun is a big reason why the Jacks are a top team in the FCS. He has thrown for 2,849 yards, 24 TDs, and six interceptions this season. Oladokun has a strong arm with two great downfield threats in the Janke twins, who are also effective on WR screens. Tucker Kraft is second on the team with 59 catches for 677 yards and six TDs as one of the very best tight ends in the country. The Jacks can move the ball through the air and actually average more passing yards a game (222.8) than rushing. But it’s all set up by the No. 8 FCS rushing offense (218.6 YPG).
Just like on the other side of the ball, getting the run game going will be a challenge. MSU’s rushing defense ranks 13th in the FCS, allowing 106.7 yards per game. The defensive line is tough and active. Chase Benson is a great interior defensive lineman plugging up the middle at 285 pounds. Daniel Hardy is the star on the edge, racking up 20.5 TFLs and 14 sacks this season. DE Amandre Williams isn’t as productive numbers-wise compared to his standout 2019 season as the Bobcats have gone from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense, but he’s versatile on the line and has 10.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks this year.
Troy Andersen patrols the middle of the defense at linebacker. Perhaps the best pure athlete in the FCS that was an All-American offensive player earlier in his career as a running QB, Andersen has 127 tackles, 13 TFLs, two sacks, two interceptions, and seven pass breakups. The secondary has been strong all season outside of a poor performance in the loss at Montana. MSU ranks No. 12 in passing yards allowed per game (177.8).
The status of Strong is a big storyline heading into this game. But MSU is dealing with injuries to key players as well. Benson, Andersen, and starting DB Ty Okada are banged up and questionable. Their availability (or ability if they do play) on Saturday are massive factors.
SDSU’s o-line vs. MSU’s d-line is a great battle in controlling the line of scrimmage. The Jacks are No. 7 in the FCS with only one sack allowed per game. They have physically overwhelmed two top Big Sky teams and a Villanova squad that prides itself on having a physical defense. MSU’s defense, especially up front, looks like it has reached another level compared to 2019 when it did not hold up well against NDSU. The Bobcats are bigger and stronger, and they rank No. 10 in sacks per game (3.15) and No. 20 in TFLs per game (6.8).
SDSU’s Hunter Dustman averages 40.9 yards per punt with 12 inside the 20-yard line. Cole Frahm is 18-27 on field goals with a long of 54.
Tyler Feldkamp and Amar Johnson have handled most of the kick return duties as both average around 17 yards per return. Standout receiver Jadon Janke was put back there last week against Villanova, returning three kicks for 71 yards to bring his total to four kick returns for 99 yards. The Jacks average 4.4 yards as a team in punt returns.
The Jacks allow 18.15 yards per kick return (35th in the FCS) and 7.25 yards per punt return (59th).
MSU’s Bryce Leighton averages 41.25 yards per punt with 16 inside the 20-yard line. Blake Glessner is 18-23 on field goals with a long of 54 yards.
MSU averages 12.59 yards per kick return as a team and 4.29 yards per punt return. The Bobcats allow 15.10 yards per kick return (sixth in the FCS) and 6.75 yards per punt return (49th).
Check out the latest episode of the FCS Football Talk podcast, which is also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart, Stitcher, and Spreaker.
SUBSCRIBE: FCS Football Talk