Bison opponent Montana State finally found a quarterback star in 'Touchdown Tommy' Mellott
The promising in-state freshman started the season as a fourth-team QB but when the Bobcats' starter left the team as the FCS playoffs began, Mellott led them to three wins and a spot in the FCS national championship game against NDSU.
BOZEMAN, Mont. — The Montana State football team got back to Bozeman at 5 a.m. on Dec. 12.
About seven hours earlier, the Bobcats beat Sam Houston 42-19 in the FCS quarterfinals, thanks to a five-touchdown performance from quarterback Tommy Mellott. The team's flight into Texas was delayed, and the flight home was a red eye.
Around 1 p.m. Dec. 12, MSU's coaches looked out the windows of their Bobcat Athletic Complex offices and saw one of their players running around the field. It was Mellott.
MSU wide receivers coach Justin Udy took a photo of Mellott mid-trot, and Udy posted it to Twitter after MSU's 31-17 semifinal win over South Dakota State on Dec. 18.
"I knew things were different," Udy wrote in his tweet. "One word... Proud!!!"
Mellott began the 2021 season as MSU's fourth-string QB. The freshman from Butte then became an occasional spark off the bench. Then he became the starter. Now, after leading his team to its first FCS title game since 1984, "Touchdown Tommy" is a sensation, thanks to his playoff heroics and off-field moments like the one Udy shared.
"To Coach Udy's point, it was like 'OK, we are in pretty good hands right here if our quarterback's out there doing the extra,'" MSU head coach Brent Vigen said Monday. "Why was Tommy in position to do what he's been able to do the last few weeks? It's because that's who he is in all things."
Mellott's talent has never been in question, but he's young and was raw as a passer entering the season. Previous starter Matthew McKay was a four-star prospect out of high school and a desired transfer from North Carolina State. Season-opening backup Tucker Rovig is a team captain who started the final 12 games of the 2019 season and led the Cats to the FCS semifinals.
Mellott spent most of the season on special teams, running down on kickoffs and covering punts. He occasionally lined up at receiver. When he did appear at QB, it was in a wildcat role; he completed 2 of 4 passes for 12 yards in the regular season.
The departure of McKay, who entered the transfer portal before the Bobcats' first-round playoff game against UT Martin, created an opportunity for Mellott after McKay struggled in his final five games. But the starting QB job didn't fall into Mellott's lap. He earned it.
Mellott set an MSU playoff QB record with 180 rushing yards in a 26-7 win over UTM. He rushed for two TDs, threw two and caught another at Sam Houston. He passed for 233 yards, ran for 155 and accounted for all four TDs against SDSU. His 34 carries also set a program record for a QB.
"It's not just extra conditioning, but it was extra work, even though he wasn't maybe getting all the reps through the season, of just continuing to learn the quarterback position," Vigen said. "Extra work continuing to hone his skills throwing the football, and then the amount of time he's been in the film room, it's hard to quantify."
Mellott stressed the importance of not getting too high or too low. He even downplayed the "Touchdown Tommy" moniker, saying that he's "not big on any of those nicknames."
"We're just taking it day to day, as we've been doing all year long," Mellott said. "I think years down the road, I'll look back and have a different perspective. But right now, just focused on what we're doing."
For a moment, Mellott couldn't keep the emotions in. He cried on the bench after the semifinals win as Rovig took the game-sealing knee, a circumstance only made possible because Mellott requested Rovig take the game's final two snaps, according to Vigen.
"He's, I'm sure, trying to say, 'How am I in this position? A month ago, I'm covering kicks and trying to tackle and trying to block on the perimeter, and here I am,'" Vigen said of Mellott. "For a kid from this state to have led his team to the national championship game, you hope that evokes some emotion."
Mellott collected himself in time to sign autographs and take photos with countless fans on the field, many of whom were younger than him. Perhaps, Vigen said, "another Tommy Mellott" caught a glimpse of Mellott's generosity.
Vigen didn't take a photo of Mellott running laps outside his office window on Dec. 12. The mental image was powerful enough. It's one of many Mellott has created during his steep ascent.
"I think you wonder on the outside, 'How is this kid doing this?'" Vigen said. "Well, he's really talented, but he's got something in him that allows him to take that talent to another level."
Optimistic injury update
Vigen stressed that the FCS title game is more than two weeks away, but he provided an optimistic outlook of his team's health.
Against SDSU, MSU played without All-American second-team running back Isaiah Ifanse, All-American third-team nose tackle Chase Benson and All-Big Sky second-team nickelback Ty Okada. Vigen said Monday that "there's a real possibility that they could be back" on Jan. 8 in Frisco, Texas.
Backup linebacker Nolan Askelson might also be able to go against NDSU, Vigen said. Askelson, a Billings Senior graduate, hasn't played since suffering a leg injury against San Diego on Sept. 18.
The national title game "allows for guys that maybe were seen as season-ending to some degree, because that would have taken them into December, as having some new life," Vigen said.
Right tackle TJ Session was available on Saturday but didn't play. Vigen said Session "is in position" to see the field for the first time since suffering a leg injury on Nov. 13 against Idaho. The redshirt freshman from California started the first 10 games of the season.
The Cats will still be without some key players, including Kyle Rygg. The first-string defensive tackle suffered a season-ending injury in the opener at Wyoming, Vigen said.
"But outside of his injury, as far as guys that have been on the field a significant amount, I think we have a real chance to be as healthy as we've been going back to the first game," Vigen said.
During Vigen's introductory press conference in February, athletic director Leon Costello presented a jersey with Vigen's name and the No. 84 on the back. Vigen wore that number when he played tight end at North Dakota State in the 1990s.
Vigen didn't see any double meaning in that number.
"I didn't that day," Vigen said Monday, "but I guess I would now."
Before this season, MSU hadn't hosted an FCS semifinal game since 1984. Jan. 8 will be the Cats' first national title appearance since 1984, and that was the last time they won a national championship.
Vigen has met many members of that 1984 team, and he knows all about the 1976 and '56 teams. It's hard to forget the three years that ended with MSU as a national champion.
The No. 21 will be remembered for years to come. It will be remembered forever if the Cats beat NDSU next month.
"The three championship teams are very important to the history of this program," Vigen said. "To say the '84,'76, '56 teams are immortal, I don't know. But if they are, that's where I want our guys to be."
Victor Flores — email@example.com and on Twitter @VictorFlores406 — reports for the Billings (Mont.) Gazette — www.billingsgazette.com — which is distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.