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FCS National Championship Preview: Montana State vs. North Dakota State

The Bison are winners of eight FCS titles. But this year, a new, exciting challenger enters the ring with them.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 11 NCAA Division I Football Championship Game Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, January 8 at Noon ET
  • Network: ESPN2
  • Location: Toyota Stadium — Frisco, TX
  • Spread: North Dakota State (-7.5), per DraftKings
  • Over/under: 42, per DraftKings
  • Montana State Moneyline: +245
  • North Dakota State Moneyline: -310

* Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.

On Saturday, the 2021 FCS season will culminate in Frisco, Texas as it has for 12 years now with the nation's top two teams squaring off for a national title. This year's championship bout features two programs that took two very different routes to the top but are each worthy of playing for the crown. North Dakota State are back again for an unprecedented ninth time in the last 11 seasons while Montana State is making their first appearance since 1984.

The Bison were expected to be here by many. NDSU was the #2 overall seed in the playoffs and had a road to Frisco that would take every opposing team through Fargo, the scariest place there is to play in December. Montana State, though, came in as the #8 seed fresh off a thumping at the hands of their rivals in the regular season finale. An impromptu quarterback change to freshman Tommy Mellott could have hindered the Bobcats, but instead it inspired them on a miraculous run to Frisco. Will the Bison walk away with their ninth trophy, or will the ‘Cats come out with the upset?

North Dakota State

2020 NCAA Division I Football Championship Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

As sure as the sun rises, the Bison are in the championship, making their ninth appearance in the last 11 seasons. A tough running game that saw three separate rushers eclipse 500 yards this season and totaled 41 touchdowns got it done for the Bison. Quarterback Cam Miller threw for over 1,300 yards and 13 scores to lead the passing attack. If NDSU is to get through a tough Montana State defense, however, it will need to do what it is best at: wearing down its opposition.

No team in the country is better at long, sustained drives that end in touchdowns. The Bison will need to have several of these to tire out MSU's stout defense. Running back Tamerik Williams will play a big part in this department. Williams rushed for 718 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. Despite being held to just 19 yards in the semifinals against James Madison, he ran for 222 yards and 4 touchdowns during the postseason and was a big part of NDSU's success on the ground.

Also, look for backup quarterback Quincy Patterson to come in and run the ball effectively as well. Patterson ran for 562 yards in 2021 and found the end zone with his legs seven times. Throw in Kobe Johnson and the Bison have a big time three-headed monster when it comes to the ground game.

Miller is hoping to get some relief through the air with the potential return of star receiver Christian Watson. Watson has missed all of North Dakota State's playoff games with a hamstring injury he suffered in practice. If he is able to play, it would be a huge boost to the offense as he's caught 39 passes for 739 yards and seven touchdowns this fall. Even if the senior wideout can't go, however, NDSU will still have the talents of Phoenix Sproles and tight end Josh Babicz.

Perhaps the most interesting and dynamic player in this game will be fullback Hunter Luepke. Luepke has 461 rushing yards but also accumulated 165 receiving yards with eight total touchdowns. The Bison can and will use Luepke in a variety of ways and he could easily be the “x factor” in keeping Montana State's defense guessing.

On the other side, the Bison defense may have a tall task in slowing down MSU's prolific run game but they might have to in order to win. The Bobcats should have junior Isaiah Ifanse back in fold and if so he needs to be a focal point. Ifanse was one of the nation's best running backs in 2021 with 1,539 yards and 10 scores. His bruising style has put many prolific offenses away this year which means that linebacker Jackson Hankey will need to have a big game. Hankey leads the team with 93 total tackles and has an interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery to his name. Slowing down Ifanse and Mellott will undoubtedly fall largely on Hankey's shoulders.

NDSU Keys to Win:

- Long, sustained drives

- No offensive turnovers

- Stop the run

Montana State

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

The Bobcats are a unique mix of experienced and inexperienced all at once. Head coach Brent Vigen is just in his first year but has been an assistant on national championship teams (North Dakota State) before. Mellott is a sensation despite only being a freshman and getting his first start just over a month ago in the team’s playoff opener. Guys like linebacker Troy Andersen and Ifanse, though, are seasoned vets who’ve made postseason runs before. That mixture has served MSU well and has them playing their best ball at the right time.

Let's start with Montana State’s strength. Their defense was tops in the Big Sky this year in several categories and undoubtedly paved the way for their championship run. Andersen is a finalist for the Buck Buchanan award and rightfully so. He led MSU in tackles with an outstanding 134 total tackles. He also has two picks (one returned for a score) and a fumble recovery.

It isn't just Andersen that lights it up for the 'Cats, though. Defensive end Daniel Hardy has been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks all season long. Hardy has 16 sacks this year and has forced two fumbles. Him and Andersen make quite the pair when it comes to stopping the run as well. The duo has a combined 37 tackles for loss and have played a huge role in stopping some of the most explosive offensive playmakers in the FCS. Just ask Eric Barriere and Eastern Washington.

Moving on to MSU's offense, Mellott is the engine that's made the offense go in the playoffs. During the Bobcats postseason run he's ran for six touchdowns and thrown for four more. Most of his 461 passing yards this year have also come in the playoffs. Mellott can seemingly do it all and MSU will need to use his dual threat ability to keep NDSU's defense honest. When he gets to the edge is when he's most dangerous, meanwhile Ifanse is most effective right up the gut. Expect Montana State to use both these guys early and often on the ground.

When it comes to the passing game, however, the 'Cats have some viable options as well. Senior receiver Lance McCutcheon has been the go-to guy on the outside all year. He's caught 58 throws for 1,113 yards and eight scores. Even more impressive than those stats is McCutcheon's breakaway ability. Several times this season he's broken out of tackles to take it the distance.

The difference maker for the Bobcats could very well be their special teams. Freshman kicker Blake Glessner is 19-for-24 on his field goal attempts this year and has a long of 54 yards. Punter Bryce Leighton is as good as they come at pinning opposing offenses deep. He has punted 64 times this year and has only put it through the end zone twice. In a game where field position could be of the utmost importance, Leighton may be MSU's best weapon.

MSU Keys to Win:

- Force turnovers on defense

- Establish the run

- Win field position battle

Final Thoughts:

This game has all the makings to be an excellent one: two stellar defenses against two offenses that know how to hurt opponents in multiple ways. Familiarity with this stage is on the side of North Dakota State but familiarity may not matter against this Montana State squad. It most likely come down to who makes fewer mistakes because these teams don't like to beat themselves. The two programs have a combined three losses between them this season and that's because they do the little things right. Whoever wins the turnover battle will probably walk away with the win. The Bobcats have been and impressive and fun story up to this point and, who knows, this may be their year. The Bison, though, are a perfect 8-0 when playing in Frisco and have a pedigree for success in this game.

Iron meets iron on Saturday and it'll be fun to see who comes out on top.