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A year later than hoped, but Montana gets its FCS playoff shot in Fargo

The Montana Grizzlies is set to play NDSU at the Fargodome in the second round of the playoffs.

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Montana starting quarterback Lucas Johnson played in the 2021 Frisco Bowl in Frisco, Texas, as the starting quarterback for San Diego State.
Tim Heitman / USA Today Sports
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FARGO — It didn’t take University of Montana head coach Bobby Hauck long to flip on a tape of North Dakota State and see the same things the Division I Football Championship Subdivision has seen for about a decade. Not much has changed with the Bison.

Holding up to the power football game will most likely be challenge No. 1 for the Grizzlies in the second round FCS playoff game Saturday at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.

“I like how they play,” Hauck said at his weekly press conference. “They play hard, they’re physical. They play with a temperament I can appreciate so I just like how they play.”

That mainly centers around the Bison offensive line, which Hauck calls the best group his team will play this season. Like a lot of teams this time of the year, however, NDSU has weathered injuries to some of its best players and departures via the transfer portal.

The injury plague has hit the NDSU offensive line with starting center Jalen Sundell and starting right tackle Mason Miller being lost for the season. Yet, the Bison seem to have not skipped a beat with center Brandon Westberg and new right tackle Grey Zabel. NDSU rushed for 375 yards in its last game against the University of North Dakota.

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“They come off the ball hard, and sustain blocks,” Hauck said. “Just really good up front on both sides of the ball, so I’m a fan of how they play. It’s evident on film. When you watch it, you can see why they win. We need a good week of prep to go compete. The way these guys play, I mean they make it real. And I hope when they see us they see a tough football team, too.”

When the Bison look at Montana, they’ll see an offense that starts with quarterback Lucas Johnson, a seventh-year player who started his career in 2016 at Georgia Tech. He spent four years at Tech, redshirting one year and being granted a medical hardship another year after suffering an early-season injury.

Johnson transferred to San Diego State for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, gaining an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic and playing in three games in ‘20 but taking over in ‘21 and going 8-1 as the starter. He led the Aztecs to a 38-24 win in the Frisco Bowl at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, a venue NDSU is well acquainted with.

Johnson has completed 161 of 254 passes this season for 1,857 yards, 19 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He missed one game after being injured at Sacramento State, a stretch where the Grizzlies lost that game and the following one at Weber State.

“He can make every throw,” said NDSU head coach Matt Entz. “He can extend plays, he knows what they want to do. They’ve got good receivers; big, long receivers. So we have to do a really good job of keeping them in front of us and trying to force him to make some poor decisions at times. That’s easier said than done.”

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Hauck said he thought his team was primed to play the Bison in last year’s FCS playoffs, but lost 28-6 at James Madison in the quarterfinals. NDSU defeated JMU at the dome in the semifinals.

“We kind of ran out of gas, didn’t have enough healthy bodies to win at Madison,” Hauck said. “Like I said, in the last decade they’ve been the gold standard, you want to test yourself against the best and they’ve been the best.”

The teams have two common opponents this year in Missouri Valley Football Conference teams Indiana State and South Dakota, which were two nonconference foes for the Big Sky Conference Grizzlies. Montana beat USD 24-7 at home and won 49-14 at Indiana State, a place where the Bison struggled to win 31-26.

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NDSU won at USD 34-17. Montana advanced to the second round with a come-from-behind 34-24 win over Southeast Missouri State.

“I think we were all pumped up last week just to be able to play another game,” said Montana senior nose guard Eli Alford. “To be able to go play in Fargo, I think that’s what a lot of guys have been looking forward to since we’ve all gotten here. I think there’s going to be a lot of energy this week in practice.”

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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