Two of the great rushing offenses in the FCS do battle when the William & Mary Tribe and Montana State Bobcats clash under the lights in Bozeman for a 10:15 PM eastern kick on ESPN2. W&M is CAA Football’s last team standing in the postseason field despite the conference having five squads qualify on Selection Sunday last month, one shy of its record six entrants (2018). MSU represents a Big Sky Conference high on momentum from its Brawl of the Wild College GameDay appearance.
In the big picture, W&M/MSU is a big game for the perception of the CAA. The Big Sky has earned more credibility in the FCS than its chasing-the-MVFC counterpart on the opposite coast, which is seeking a new deep-postseason threat after James Madison’s departure, one that can save it from failing to send a representative to the semifinals.
William & Mary has played like that sort of matchup-based-quarterfinal-plus team this season, including in an FBS win (Charlotte), but Montana State’s many challenges posed to the cross-country-traveling Tribe begin with…
Montana State’s Offense vs. William & Mary’s Defense
Among quarterfinalists, MSU is second only to UIW in PPG, averaging 44 a contest. A pair of QBs set the table for that scoring offense, as second-team All-Big Sky QB Tommy Mellott, last playoff’s sensation, is joined by Big Sky Newcomer of the Year Sean Chambers. Each player has appeared in 10 games, with Mellott and Chambers tossing nine and eight touchdowns, respectively. Both are poised to hurt defenses on the ground, as the two are Montana State’s leading rushers: Mellott has recorded 101.3 YPG to Chambers’ 79.1.
That picture captures the assignment for William & Mary LB John Pius and the rest of the Tribe defense. Pius ranks fourth in the FCS in sacks (11.5) and ninth in tackles for loss (19) while leading W&M with 71 total tackles. He keys a unit that feasted on Gardner-Webb mistakes in the second round, notching six takeaways en route to a 54-14 romp.
Defending national runner-up MSU will likely not shoot its foot off in this fashion at home, meaning William & Mary’s defense will be spending a more regular length of time on the field in the prime-time Bozeman cold.
William & Mary’s Offense vs. Montana State’s Defense
These teams’ offenses mirror each other in the running game, as W&M will respond to the Bobcats in kind with its own rushing siege. Gaining steam, the Tribe has rushed for at least 300 yards in five of its past six games. This proficiency has enabled national rankings of eighth in total offense (469.8 YPG) and 17th in scoring (35.7 PPG).
The ’Cats’ defense sees a relevantly similar run-based attack in practice, though, and is set to be focused on RB Bronson Yoder (6.4 YPC for W&M). Tribe QB Darius Wilson has used his FCS top-10 pass efficiency to elevate his game in an extension of his rushing ability. Wilson threw for 240 yards and 3 TDs vs. GWU.
A substantial increase in nuance and difficulty awaits him Friday evening when LB Callahan O’Reilly, OLB/DB Ty Okada, and the MSU defense take the field. O’Reilly is the leading tackler with 76 total stops, while Okada sports a Bobcat-best seven pass breakups. Montana State’s 27 team takeaways are tops among all eight seeds in play this weekend.
In the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2009, William & Mary will take points in every way on the road, including by the leg of K Ethan Chang. Chang converts 75% of his FGs to narrowly trail Bobcats K Blake Glessner’s 76.9%. Head coaches and program-builders Mike London (W&M) and Brent Vigen (MSU) can each trust that red-zone trips will end in points one way or another, which is critically important with possessions at a premium against playoff defenses.
Elsewhere on special teams, MSU provides its potent offense with quality starting field position using the nation’s No. 5 kickoff return average (26.26). W&M’s kickoff return defense is 20th nationally, setting the stage for an interesting give-and-take as Tribe defenders converge on any ’Cat return man looking for a break that will ignite the best home-field advantage in these playoffs this week.