For the first time in 35 years, Montana State finds itself in the FCS semifinals. The last time the Bobcats made it this far, they lifted the NCAA Division I-AA title trophy with a 19-6 win over Louisiana Tech.
With a 24-10 win over Austin Peay this last Saturday, Montana State punched its ticket to the Fargodome and the semifinals. The two met in a second-round clash last year in Fargo, with NDSU blowing out the Bobcats, 52-10.
The Big Sky Conference makes up exactly half of the FCS Final Four, with Weber State set to travel cross-country to James Madison for the other FCS semifinal clash.
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John Hooper had the opportunity to interview Montana State defensive lineman Derek Marks about Saturday’s showdown, and they talked about how this Bobcat defense has matured and the challenges that Montana State faces Saturday when it travels to meet a Bison team that has won 35-straight games.
Marks put together quite a performance in last week’s win over Austin Peay, recording five tackles, which included three behind the line-of-scrimmage in the win over the Govs.
The senior from Belgrade, MT, also has great numbers on the season. Marks currently has 50 tackles, 15.5 tackles-for-loss, five quarterback hurries, four pass breakups, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
He and the Bobcats will have their hands full against the Bison on Saturday. Here’s what he had to say about the season and about Saturday’s matchup.
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HERO Sports: Talk about stopping that Austin Peay ground attack and the defensive performance as a whole?
Marks: “They had an explosive offense and a really good player in JaVaughn Craig. He had some really good targets and a good O-Line, so they were a pretty well-balanced offensive team. It was a big game for us to prepare for and obviously, the weapons that they had were very dynamic and not that we hadn’t seen people like that, but they just had playmakers across the board so it was a big game for us to prepare for. What I think it came down to was our game plan was just really well put together and obviously well-executed on Saturday and I think a big thing was just the fast start we had coming out and shutting them down early and getting those three-and-outs on the first few series. That was really big for us in the first half. In the second half to keep that focus and that energy … the three turnovers we got were big for us.”
HERO Sports: You guys were really good last year but I think you have even elevated your play to another level this year, especially on the defensive side of the ball and on the defensive line. Talk about that improvement and just the defense and defensive line collectively and how you guys have been the catalysts for this defense, especially against good running teams. What’s this team’s identity? What’s its mantra if you have one?
Marks: “I think a big part of it is a mature group of guys that have played a lot of football together and care about this program and care about each other. Our leadership this year has been just great to have and I think the accountability in the off-season was much improved from the past three years. Guys just working harder and buying in more and more so I think that helped us take the next step. As far as the D-Line is concerned, you know we have a lot of playmakers in that room and a lot of depth as well and we have a lot of seniors that are twos for us and they come in and don’t miss a beat. So that’s big to have depth and to be playing alongside Bryce (Sterk) and Amandre (Williams) and Chase (Benson), all guys that have a lot of potential in terms of making plays and being able to take over the game. When you put that together I think it makes us a complete unit. We pride ourselves on stopping the run and beating the guy in front of us. We look at our goals pretty often and one of them is to be the best team in the country and to do that we have to be the best defense in the country and you can go down the line from team to defense to unit to yourself personally. We’re just always challenging ourselves with that and the guy next to us with that and looking at those goals and we have a way to accomplish those goals. So to sum it all up I think it’s our team culture and the culture we’ve been able to create here more so than a mantra. Which culture is good for us because it comes down to who we are as people and who we are as players and that’s just the mindset we live our lives with.”
HERO Sports: How much does it help you guys in terms of being a physical defense when you face a physical O-Line and a running back like Isaiah Ifanse and the physical running backs you have. Does that benefit the defense because you do go against such a physical offense in practice every day?
Marks: “It helps a lot. One of the things that is challenging about playing here, but also I think is big to our success is we don’t really take things off in practice. We don’t lighten up. We don’t go helmets only practice just because we are later in the season. On Monday morning and on Tuesday morning and on Wednesday morning we’re out there in full pads hitting the guy across from us and I think just part of the way we practice is helpful. But like you said we have a really physical offensive line that has just been dominant these past few weeks and then physical backs that are smart and that are fast and that are explosive. You know it’s funny, a lot of these guys have been here four years and we were a really young team four years ago and have been a young team for a few years and now we’re a veteran group. So I think just the amount of time we have been playing together and that goes with the amount of time we have been practicing against each other and I think you’re exactly right, it’s helped us a ton. I think the urgency we practice with and the intensity we practice with kind of sets the tone for the rest of the team. They see that and they know what the standard is. And that’s the same kind of thing that they will bring into spring ball next year when they see how we are showing them and they will be able to lead the younger guys in the future and that’s only going to help this program take the next step.”
HERO Sports: What has Montana State meant to you not only as a football player but as a student as well? And what has it meant to you to be a part of a community like the one in Bozeman?
Marks: “I love Montana State and man, it’s just been a fun four years here. It’s a very attractive program to come to. Montana is obviously not a huge state as far as getting a lot of big recruits but I think it’s really important that we recruit our local guys here because we are the guys that set the culture. But also it’s just a really attractive place to come to in terms of Bozeman and the community and the people that are behind this program and that care for us. That’s been unbelievable and I think really unmatched at the Big Sky level. It’s just a great university. It’s a great academic school and you have great opportunities coming out of here. Great people have graduated from this university that gives us opportunities even after college. And then I think the football program just having the success it is currently having paired with the great university it is, in terms of the administration and leadership., it’s just going to take the next step.”
HERO Sports: You’ve obviously got a bit of a task this weekend playing North Dakota State, but you did play them last year so you are prepared for the Fargodome and maybe you can take some confidence out of what Illinois State was able to do last weekend defensively. So how will you guys be more prepared this year because of facing them last year? Are you taking maybe a different approach this year?
Marks: “I think last year we kind of limped into the playoffs a little bit and we didn’t even really know if we were going to make it until the selection show. And then we found out we made it and got a home win and had our first playoff experience with the guys in this program and with this staff and got the win against Incarnate Word Then we went to NDSU and so I thought that just wasn’t our brand of football we wanted to put out there and we got a little bit embarrassed up there. Now this year I think we’ve learned from it and we’ve grown from it all off-season. Now we just have a new level of confidence and we have a new energy and we’re a new team and we’re a new staff. Not in terms of personnel, but in terms of just who we are as people, players and coaches and that’s been really helpful. I think they are a new team as well and so we’re going to come in there with a lot of confidence and just excited to play them and play football and like I said, their reputation and who they are doesn’t matter. It comes down to our preparation and preparing to beat the guy across from us and executing the game plan that our coaches put forward. So that’s our plan.”
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