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FCS Semifinal #2: Inexperience means Nothing to Vigen, Mellott and the Bobcats

For the first time since 1984, the Bobcats are heading to the national championship. The catch? They’ve done it with a true freshman and a first-year head coach.

NCAA Football: Montana State at Wyoming Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Bozeman hadn’t seen anything like it since the mid 1980s. As the clock wound down to triple zeros the 20,000 plus in attendance at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday stormed the field. Quarterback Tommy Mellott cried as his teammates congragulated him on the bench. The Bobcats had punched their ticket to Frisco, TX and earned the right to take on North Dakota State for the FCS championship next month.

It’s easy to look at this year’s MSU squad and say they stuck to the tried and true blueprint of tough defense and a bruising run game to get this far and let’s not it get it wrong, the Bobcats do boast both of those things. But their journey to the title game has been anything but normal. A change to a true freshman quarterback days before the playoffs begin? Not exactly something that instils a lot of confidence in a deep run. A first year coach who, until now, had zero experience as the head man? Again, not exactly the usual formula. This Montana State team, however, is anything but usual.

As for the South Dakota State Jackrabbits; they were the road warriors of this tournament. Having won two straight away from Brookings, the Jacks were tasked with doing it a third time if they wanted to head back to Texas after playing for the title in the spring. Maybe it was that spring season (that Montana State didn’t play) or maybe it was those two prior road games in as many weeks that did them in, though. Despite getting back star running back Pierre Strong Jr., MSU proved to be too much and SDSU is left still searching for its first title.

Montana State’s defense made the first big statement play of the afternoon when senior linebacker Troy Andersen tracked down Jackrabbits quarterback Chris Oladokun on a 4th and short try deep in MSU territory. Andersen drug him down for the stop to ensure the game remained 0-0 early.

MSU built on that momentum with the first of four Mellott touchdowns shortly after. Mellott, who was named the starter two days before the ‘Cats first playoff game in the midst of Matt McKay’s surprising transfer, unloaded a pass to receiver Nate Stewart on the sideline and Stewart broke free for a 64-yard score.

As they have done all postseason, however, SDSU responded and wasted no time doing so. Pierre Strong Jr. cut a run to the outside and made MSU defenders miss on a 44-yard scamper in which he went untouched into the end zone. The game was knotted at 7-7 as the first quarter came to a close.

MSU kicker Blake Glessner connected on a 27-yard field goal to give the Bobcats a 10-7 advantage midway through the second but the Jacks would claim their first lead three short minutes later. Oladokun found Jalen Janke for a 13-yard touchdown. The back-and-forth game was continuing but this had to be the most uneasy ‘Cats fans felt all game. The Bobcats would score another touchdown to ensure the game was again tied at halftime. With 30 to go, it was still anyone’s for the taking.

Both head coaches Brent Vigen and John Stiegelmeier made excellent defensive adjustments at the break because the two defenses showed out in the third quarter. Punt after punt kept the game at 17 all through the frame, at least until the very end. On the very last play of the quarter, though, Mellott bullied his way in for a hard-earned three-yard touchdown. MSU was back on top 24-17 as the fourth began.

This time, though, SDSU was unable to respond. Oladokun threw and errant pass directly to Montana State DB Simeon Woodard who nabbed the lone interception of the afternoon. Woodard cut it back and went down in Jackrabbits territory before a raucous crowd. The MSU faithful were starting to smell the blood in the water.

It only took Mellott four plays to bust it wide open. With 10:35 to go he lofted a 17-yard pass that was hauled in by receiver Lance McCutcheon in the end zone. It was Mellott’s second passing touchdown of the day and his fourth overall. The true freshman was again balling out and now up 31-17, Montana State went into “close out” mode.

The Jacks were starting to show their desperation by going for it on fourth down twice in their final three drives. Twice they failed and gave the ball back to a humming MSU offense and ultimately that was the final nail. Montana State recovered a late fumble and the party was on. The ‘Cats put a bow on it and, in a home game they didn’t think they’d have two weeks ago, gave their fans something to rejoice over.

Mellott certainly didn’t play like a guy making his first FCS playoff run. He threw for 233 yards and ran for another 155 while having a hand in four touchdowns. He did it all without star running back Isaiah Ifanse who missed the game with a lower body injury. MSU’s defense, that was without a few playmakers of their own, held the normally-explosive Jacks running game to 124 yards and forced two decisive turnovers.

Bobcats head coach Brent Vigen will face his old team and alma mater in the national championship in three weeks. Mellott and company will play in their first against a dynasty but these ‘Cats have a chance. They’ve done it unconventionally and that’s just how they like it. With just one game left on the docket anything goes and Vigen’s team has the opportunity to play giant killer one more time.