Game Day notebook: Montana State coach Vigen says Bison fullback Hunter Luepke has MSU's complete attention
North Dakota State fullback Hunter Luepke has been a versatile part of the Bison offense this season, especially during the FCS semifinals
FRISCO, Texas — When Montana State head coach Brent Vigen was the offensive coordinator at North Dakota State, the Bison had their share of talented fullbacks and tight ends.
Hunter Luepke is unlike any fullback Vigen coached in his final three seasons at NDSU that ended with NCAA Division I FCS national championships to cap the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons.
“I know in our three years, those last three championships, we didn’t have anybody like Hunter Luepke, I know that. So their willingness to play him all over and really stress him is smart," Vigen said.
Montana State (12-2) plays NDSU (13-1) at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 8, at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, for the FCS national championship. A 6-foot-1, 236-pound junior, Luepke is coming off a stellar performance in the semifinals.
He rushed for 110 yards on 19 attempts and added three catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns. Luepke's 22-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter proved to be the game-winner in a 20-14 victory against James Madison at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
Vigen said Luepke's ability to play fullback, tight end and running back at a high level is what makes him a unique offensive weapon.
"Maybe as unique as has been in that program. His ability to play fullback, the position he’s listed at, I think he’s really talented there. That means he’s blocking on the power play or on the perimeter," Vigen said. “His ability to line up in the wing position and be a real threat there has been evidenced in both his blocking ability and catching ability. When they throw him back and tailback and give him the ball, that’s such a rare combination. There’s been guys that have maybe been able to do two of those three things pretty well, but to do all three as well as he’s done them. He may be their best athlete."
Luepke has rushed for 461 yards and five touchdowns on 73 attempts, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. He's also caught nine passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns, while being limited at certain points of the season due to injury. He's missed two games.
"He's a guy who has our complete attention," Vigen said.
Former Bison CB Banks leads MSU defense
Former North Dakota State cornerback Freddie Banks is the defensive coordinator for Montana State. Banks was on the NDSU team that defeated the Bobcats during the 2010 FCS playoffs.
“I think Coach Banks does an outstanding job on third down being really creative in some of his looks and some of his pressure, especially getting quarterbacks off their spot and making them uncomfortable," Bison head coach Matt Entz said.
The Bobcats are allowing 13.4 points per game in Banks' first season as the team's defensive coordinator. Banks started his coaching career at Minnesota State Moorhead in 2011 and spent two seasons as an assistant for the Dragons.
Entz is impressed with how Banks has led the Bobcats defense.
“Freddie has done a tremendous of getting those guys to understand good, solid gap-control defense," Entz said.
That started from the opening tip. MSU gave Wyoming all it wanted in the season opener before the Cowboys prevailed 19-16. The Bobcats did have one advantage: MSU knew more about the Cowboys than the Cowboys knew about the Bobcats with Vigen being a former Wyoming assistant.
Banks changed the defensive system from a 3-4 to a 4-3.
"And they did that seamlessly," said Wyoming offensive coordinator Tim Polasek. "They had tough players."
Vigen, Bobcats prepare for 2 Bison QBs
Vigen said the Bison using two quarterbacks creates a unique challenge for the Bobcats. While NDSU starter Cam Miller takes the majority of the snaps, backup Quincy Patterson has provided a power running threat from the QB spot, especially during the postseason.
“You’ve got to prepare for each one individually," Vigen said. "They’re different, they’re quite a bit different not only in stature, but what they do with them.”
Miller has completed 94 of 139 passes (68%) for 1,318 yards and 13 touchdowns with three interceptions. He took over as the starter in the eighth game of the regular season.
“I think he’s continued to play with more confidence, throwing the ball really well," Vigen said.
The 6-foot-3, 246-pound Patterson has rushed for 562 yards and seven touchdowns on 102 attempts and also passed for 813 yards. He started the first seven games this season and the Bison were 7-0 in his starts.
“He’s really hard to handle in the run game in particular, but more than capable in the passing game," Vigen said.
Vigen said you also have to prepare for formations with both Miller and Patterson on the field. During the FCS semifinals, Miller threw a pass to Patterson, but Patterson was unable to hold on for the reception.
“You expect that there is going to be more to that," Vigen said of different wrinkles with both QBs on the field at the same time.
Team intros will not be at full power
One of the traditions of the FCS title game is to play each team's home game introduction during the regular season. Both, however, will not be at full power.
NDSU, of course, turns out the lights at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. Toyota Stadium is an outdoor venue, but AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" will still be part of the Bison taking the field.
Montana State has another touch at Bobcat Stadium: members of the school's rodeo team ride seven horses in front of the team each carrying a flag with a letter of the school's nickname.
"I get more nervous for that than I do for rodeos," MSU rodeo team member Paige Rasmussen told SWX Sports' Chris Byers.
Rasmussen is the defending all-around national rodeo champion, but nobody in Frisco will be able to see that. There will be no horses at Toyota Stadium.
Odds and ends
- Montana State is playing in the national championship game for the first time since 1984. The Bobcats earned a 19-6 victory against Louisiana Tech to win the national title that season. The Bison are set to play in their ninth FCS title game since 2011 and have an 8-0 record in their previous title game appearances.
- Bison offensive lineman Cordell Volson will be playing in his 65th career game, a team record. It will be the 66th career game for defensive tackle Michael Buetow, who played in 43 games at Minnesota State Mankato before transferring to NDSU. Both players benefited from the extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic.
- NDSU has the most FCS titles with eight (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019) with Georgia Southern (1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1999, 2000) in second place with six. Youngstown State is third on that list with four (1991, 1993, 1994, 1997). Counting its Division II days, NDSU has won 16 overall national championships.
- The Bison will surpass Georgia Southern for the most FCS title game appearances this season. GSU, now an FBS program, is 6-2 in title games. NDSU is set to become the first program to play in nine FCS national championship games.
- The Missouri Valley Football Conference has had at least one participant in the FCS national title game since the 2011 season. North Dakota State, Illinois State, Youngstown State and South Dakota State have all played a role in that streak that stands at 11 consecutive title games.