Date: Saturday, December 16th
Time: 4:30 PM (ET)
The Quick Hits
For the first time since 2009, Washington-Grizzly Stadium will bear witness to a national semifinal. After a thrilling overtime win last weekend, Montana (12-1) is one victory away from a trip to Frisco. With a tough defense, dynamic quarterback, electrifying special teams and a raucous crowd all on their side, the Griz have everything going for them on Saturday afternoon. The only thing standing between them and the FCS promised land is North Dakota State.
The Bison (11-3) are back in familiar territory but they’ve taken a much different path to this point than in years past. Winners of three straight road games in the playoffs, NDSU comes into hostile Missoula oozing confidence. The defense is playing lights out right now while the offense is clicking at a whole new level as compared to September and October. Saturday should prove to be the Bison’s toughest test yet.
Matt Entz will lead the Bison into what could be his last ever game with NDSU. Word is now out that Entz has accepted the linebackers coaching gig at USC but he plans to ride the rest of this season out with his team. Already a winner of two national championships, Entz is looking to close out his time in Fargo with a third. He is 60-10 since taking over as the team’s head man and will be coaching in his 18th playoff game on Saturday. Entz has only lost two postseason games.
For the home team it'll be Bobby Hauck calling the shots. The 13th-year head man is the winningest coach in both Montana as well as Big Sky history and finished third in the voting for the 2023 Eddie Robinson Award. Hauck has led the Griz this far the postseason five times during his two stints and has won 17 total playoff games. He has yet to win a national championship but has appeared in the game three times (2004, 2008 and 2009). Hauck can pick up his 129th career win with UM this weekend.
North Dakota State Offense vs Montana Defense
Cam Miller will pilot the Bison offense. Miller is a dual-threat signal-caller that knows how to hurt defenses in a variety of ways. He’s passed for 2,531 yards and 18 touchdowns this fall but has also run for 645 yards and 13 more scores. If given enough space, Miller is capable of taking it the distance on any given play.
That means that Montana’s tacklers will need to be on it. The Griz defense allows under 100 rush yards per game and is holding opponents to 15.9 points per contest this year. Linebackers Braxton Hill and Tyler Flink are a big reason why. Hill leads the team with 106 stops while Flink has 71. Both know how to get to the quarterback, too. The dup has combined for four sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
Miller isn’t the only one who can do it on the ground for NDSU. Running backs TaMerik Williams and T.K. Marshal have been deadly this year. Williams, who has a team-leading 715 rush yards, is averaging over six yards per touch and has eight scores. Marshal has five touchdowns and 358 yards. Backup QB Cole Payton will see carries as well. He has posted 12 touchdowns and 573 yards this season.
Receiver Zach Mathis and tight end Joe Stoffel will serve as Miller’s go-to guys in the passing game. Each has six touchdown receptions this year with Mathis posting a team-best 651 yards on 45 catches. Stoffel has hauled in 24 passes for 281 yards.
Grizzlies safety Ryder Meyer will need to have his head on a swivel. He is second on UM’s squad with 74 tackles and has an interception along with a forced fumble to his name this season. Meyer, who’s brother Tucker is serving as NDSU’s linebacker coach, also has four defended passes.
Montana Offense vs North Dakota State Defense
Montana’s offense is a far cry from it what was back in September and that’s because Clifton McDowell took over at quarterback and never looked back. The UCA transfer has been dynamite for the Griz, throwing for 1,701 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has not lost a game as a starter and has only tossed three picks all year. McDowell has also rushed for nine touchdowns and 734 yards.
The true star on offense, though, is freshman running back Eli Gillman. Gillman, who received this year’s Jerry Rice Award, has run for 901 yards and ten scores this season. He averages over five yards per carry and has three 100-yard games under his belt this fall. Gillman is also no stranger to catching passes as he 12 receptions for 102 yards.
North Dakota State will look to slow down Gillman and McDowell with linebackers Logan Kopp and Nick Kubitz. Kopp has started in all 14 games this season for the Bison and 80 total tackles (7.5 for loss). He has also come down with three interceptions and has two forced fumbles. Kubitz has 46 tackles and a QB hit.
NDSU’s most dangerous player on defense, though, is safety Cole Wisniewski. The senior has intercepted eight passes this year and has taken two back for touchdowns. He also leads the team in tackles with 81 and has knocked away 13 passes. Throwing in Wisniewski’s direction comes at a high risk and McDowell should only do so sparingly.
Wisniewski will be tasked with corralling receivers like Keelan White and Aaron Fontes. The duo has combined for nine touchdowns and well over 1,200 receiving yards this season. Junior Bergen will also be a threat in the passing game. The junior wideout is second on the team with 707 yards and four touchdowns.
The Special Teams
A legitimate argument can be made that Montana would not be playing in this game without its special teams unit. Last week against Furman, Bergen sparked the Griz with a kickoff return touchdown and a punt return touchdown. He is an ace in the runback game to say the very least and if this game swings on anything, it very well could be him. Bergen has four total house calls in his career.
Nico Ramos will take the field goals for Montana. He is 9-of-11 this season but both of his misses came in last week’s win. Ramos’ season long is 43 yards and he is 25-of-27 on his extra point attempts this year. Travis Benham will punt for the Griz. The redshirt senior has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 22 times this year and is averaging 40.5 yards per kick. He only has two touchbacks this fall.
For NDSU it will be Griffin Crosa on kicks. Crosa has connected on 16 of his 19 field goal tries this year and has a season-long 44. He has not missed a field goal since the team’s October __ meeting with South Dakota State. Kaedin Steindorf will do the punting. He averages nearly 45 yards per boot and has six punts of at least 50 yards this season.
In the return game it will be Jayden Price on punts and RaJa Nelson on kicks. Price has two punt return touchdowns this year and has 227 total punt return yards. Nelson has not taken one the distance yet but is averaging over 28 yards per runback.
As crazy as NDSU’s bout in Bozeman was two weeks ago, this game has all the makings to be even better. The Grizzlies, behind one of the best homefield crowds in all of college football, should have a distinct advantage when it comes to noise and momentum. However, the Bison have been in moments like this before and this Griz team hasn’t. The game will be back and forth from the jump. Each defense will make a big turnover but each offense will also have an answer. Gillman and McDowell will get Montana juiced up but in the closing stages, North Dakota State’s experience will come through. Williams scores a late touchdown in the closing minutes... maybe seconds... to lift the Bison and get them back to Texas.
Score Prediction: North Dakota State: 30 - Montana: 28