One of the most rocking environments in all of college football this weekend will be in Bozeman, Montana. That’s because Montana State, the 6-seed in this year’s FCS playoffs, is welcoming in one of the most high-profile visitors it’s seen in quite some time and for a postseason game no less. North Dakota State... often the Bobcats’ playoff dance partner in recent years... will make the trek to the Treasure State this weekend, giving MSU the chance to rewrite its troubled history against the Bison.
Back in 2010, NDSU made a similar trip to see the ‘Cats who, at that time, were favorites in the second round of the playoffs. Led by standout running back DJ McNorton, though, the Bison trounced Montana State 42-17 thanks to a 209-yard performance from the junior. Albeit 13 years ago, it was one of the last times North Dakota State played a road playoff game. Since then the program has won nine FCS titles, made ten appearances in the national championship and has won 45 playoff contests. A 46th victory will set a new FCS record.
Many of those runs to Frisco saw the Bison collide with the Bobcats. In 2018 MSU came to Fargo in the second round but got blasted to the tune of 52-10. Running back Lance Dunn ran for four touchdowns in a game that was essentially over before it began. A year later, NDSU welcomed Montana State in again, this time in the semifinals, but the result was essentially the same. The Bison romped to a 42-14 victory.
The budding postseason rivalry got flexed to the biggest stage in 2021 when the two teams clashed in Texas for the national championship. Even under the bright lights of Toyota Stadium, however, the Bobcats could not shake the monkey that was North Dakota State off their collective back. Matt Entz’s team steamrolled Montana State 38-10 to claim their ninth crown. MSU, for as good as they were, was still a step behind and it was obvious.
On Saturday, Montana State gets another shot at their playoff bugaboo and it certainly is an opportunity several of its players have to be relishing. Quarterback Tommy Mellott, who was a freshman for the Bobcats in that championship game two years ago, got injured on the opening drive and was sidelined for the remainder of that contest. Also a freshman that season was defensive end Brody Grebe who made one stop in the game. Grebe is now a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award and has been lynchpin for the MSU defensive line.
Montana State head coach Brent Vigen has some personal stake in this one as well. Not only was he the Bobcats head man in that national championship but Vigen is also an NDSU alum and served as an assistant there from 1998 until 2013. He was part of three Bison teams to win it all.
If ever there was a team that wanted revenge, it’s Montana State.
The task will be a tall order, though. Their neighbors to the east are never an easy out and this year’s Bison team has proven it still has what it takes to make a run. Quarterback Cam Miller is one of the more accurate passers in the nation, completing his throws at a 74.7% rate. He is behind only Richmond’s Kyle Wickersham in that category among FCS signal-callers.
North Dakota State’s rushing attack ranks fourth in the country at 233.2 yards per game and it’s done by a committee of backs. Miller, along with TaMerik Williams and Cole Payton have each run for over 400 yards this year and account for 23 of the team’s 31 rushing touchdowns.
On defense NDSU has three guys (Logan Kopp, Jake Kava and Dylan Kendricks) who have more than seven tackles for loss. DB Cole Wisniewski has five interceptions, five more PBUs and a forced fumble under his belt. In all the Bison defense has forced 18 turnovers and has sacked opposing passers 29 times in 2023.
Again, if MSU wants to rewrite the narrative, it won’t be easy.
However, the Bobcats do have a few things working in their favor this time around. This game being at home for them is huge as Montana State has not lost on their field since 2019. Their 26-game winning streak at home is the longest such stretch in all of Division I football right now.
There is also a vital member on the team’s offense that was not around for any of the other previous meetings with NDSU and that’s quarterback Sean Chambers. Chambers, who typically splits snaps with Mellott, likes to run the ball and is a bulldozer when he does. He has rushed for 33 touchdowns since transferring in from Wyoming last year and has true breakaway ability on any given play.
Like the Bison, Montana State also boasts one of the best rushing attacks in the country and Chambers isn’t the only reason why. Wisconsin-transfer Julius Davis has been dynamite for the ‘Cats this year, racking up 718 yards on 104 carries. Mellott is a danger when he gets it to the outside and Jared White is no slouch either with 514 yards.
Whether all that will be enough remains to be seen. Montana State has issues it needs to work through after a lopsided defeat to rival Montana in the regular season finale. It was easily the team’s worst showing of the year and that 37-7 loss has left a sour taste in the mouths of MSU and its following heading into the playoffs. Their bounce-back ability will be put to a major test here.
The Bobcats and Bison will kick off at 3:00 PM (ET) and can be streamed on ESPN+. The winner will have a date with the winner of South Dakota and Sacramento State in the quarterfinals.