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THE BIG GAME

Bobcats face down Bison in FCS national championship
By 
Jason Bacaj — Enterprise Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2022
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Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott runs against South Dakota State University in the Dec. 18 semifinal game. Enterprise photo by Jason Bacaj

Montana State University is on the doorstep of its first Football Championship Subdivision championship since 1984, but standing in the Bobcats way is a formidable opponent: the most successful college football program of the past decade.

The North Dakota State University Bison have a record of 127-8 since 2011, including a 22-game playoff winning streak and eight national titles. The program has produced a number of NFL players, notably Carson Wentz, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, and Trey Lance, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.

But the Bobcats aren’t daunted by the Bison’s past success. After all, their head coach, Brent Vigen, was the offensive coordinator for NDSU at the start of that successful run. Vigen has kept the ‘Cats focused throughout the season, in which they’ve overcome a number of obstacles, namely losing the starting quarterback right before the playoffs and injuries to three key contributors throughout the playoffs.

The championship game is scheduled for 10 a.m. MST and will be shown on ESPN2.

Matchups to watch

• First team All-American MSU senior linebacker Troy Andersen and first team All-American NDSU senior fullback Hunter Luepke. The 6-foot-4 235-pound Andersen is probably the best defensive player in the FCS. The Dillon product’s early fourth down tackle of Isaiah Davis, South Dakota State’s bowling ball of a running back, in the red zone set the tone for the semifinal game of the playoffs.

Andersen has his work cut out for him with corralling the multi-faceted Luepke, who scored all three of NDSU’s touchdowns — a 34-yard reception, 4-yard run and a 22-yard catch — in the semifinal game against James Madison University. Luepke’s high school resume is about as eclectic as Andersen’s college one. In addition to exploits on the football field, the Bison back was a two-time state wrestling champ, three-time all-conference center fielder and a 100-meter dash conference champion.

• MSU freshman quarterback Tommy Mellott and first team All-American NDSU senior strong safety Michael Tutsie. Mellott has been a revelation during the playoffs after being thrust into a starting role fol lowing the abrupt departure of season-long starter Matt McKay. Mellott has rolled up 411 rushing yards, 449 passing yards and 11 touchdowns in three playoff games and seems to improve with each game.

Tutsie has started for 26 consecutive games and this season ranks second on the team in tackles, with 79 takedowns from his safety position. He nabbed an interception in the Bison’s quarterfinal game. Tutsie will be a key cog in the defense working to limit Mellott’s big-play ability both on the ground and in the air.

• First team All-American MSU senior defensive end Daniel Hardy and three-time All-American NDSU right tackle Cordell Volson. Hardy has been a monster on the edge this season, his first on the defensive line. The senior was a basketball star — Hardy stands 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan — and has only played football since his senior year in high school. Regardless, he has racked up 16 sacks and 23 tackles for loss so far this season.

The 6-foot-7 Volson is a fair matchup for Hardy. The highly decorated tackle started since 2019, the year he led Bison linemen with 100 knockdown blocks in 12 regular season games, according to NDSU. Last season, he spent time at every position on the o-line except for center, allowed zero sacks and was named the Phil Steele FCS Offensive Lineman of the Year.

Predictions

Both the Bison and the Bobcats win in similar fashion: powerful offensive and defensive lines paired with prolific rushing attacks. What seems safe to say is that the game won’t be a shootout, seeing as how the two schools rank first and second in the FCS in scoring defense, with NDSU allowing 11.21 points per game and Montana State allowing 13.43 points per game.

It’ll come down to which team’s game-breaking talents perform the best, and I believe Montana State has caught lightning in a bottle this postseason.

MSU wins 27-21.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

Montana State Bobcats vs. North Dakota State Bison

Saturday, Jan. 8

10 a.m. Mountain Time on ESPN2