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Kolpack: Montana went for the gusto late in the second quarter, and paid for it

North Dakota State linebacker Cole Wisniewski's TD off a Grizzly fumble was the big play in the Bison's win Saturday.

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North Dakota State's Cole Wisniewski dives to recover a fumble by Montana quarterback Lucas Johnson for a touchdown during the NCAA FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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It was billed as a matchup of blue bloods in Division I FCS football, a reference to the history and traditions of North Dakota State and the University of Montana. Long before the Bison became the trademark of the subdivision, it was the Grizzlies who were front and center.

Both play in big stadiums that draw people. Perhaps the environment of 12,929 fans at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome wasn’t like those Georgia Southern or James Madison playoff games, but there was drama.

The 49-26 Bison second-round win on Saturday afternoon had plays, heated exchanges and explosive touchdowns. For all of that, we give you one play that made the biggest difference: Cole Wisniewski’s fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown off a fumble by Montana quarterback Lucas Johnson late in the second quarter.

It was big in multiple ways other than just six points for the Bison. The hit on Johnson put him out for the rest of the game, taking the Grizzlies’ best chance of winning this game out of the picture.

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“It’s a shame we gave up a touchdown on offense in the second quarter,” said Montana head coach Bobby Hauck. “That was tough on us.”

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North Dakota State's Cole Wisniewski celebrates his fumble recovery for a touchdown against Montana with teammate Dom Jones during the NCAA FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

Montana took over at its own 2-yard line with 3:34 remaining after a Bison punt. A 9-yard pass from Johnson to Malik Flowers on third-and-8 got a first down at the Montana 13-yard line. A 2-yard run by Isiah Childs on third-and-1 got another first down to the 24.

But Johnson was sacked on a first down pass attempt, forcing a second-and-16. That’s when the Grizzlies stopped the clock with just over a minute remaining and a whole lot of real estate to navigate just to get into field goal range.

The fact Montana called a time out is one of those arm-chair quarterback questionable decisions that head coaches routinely face. My first inclination was that it was NDSU that called the time out.

The Bison had the Grizzlies in long yardage. Stop them the next couple of plays with two time outs remaining and Montana would have had to punt near its end zone with dangerous Bison punt returner Jayden Price back somewhere near midfield.

“We were trying to score,” said Hauck, who added that a facemask penalty should have been called on NDSU on the play. “That would have brought the ball back to us. So, too bad, it was a shame on that play and that stuff happens.”

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North Dakota State's Kody Huisman tackles Montana quarterback Lucas Johnson to force a fumble during the NCAA FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

NDSU head coach Matt Entz said he was thinking of a time out to make sure his team had the right defensive alignment in the game, not so much to stop the clock in hopes of getting the ball back.

Anyway, Johnson went back to pass under heavy pressure on the next play and was tackled by defensive tackle Kody Huisman, a hit that forced a fumble. NDSU’s noseguard Javier Derritt got his hands on the loose ball but couldn’t pull it in, with the ball deflecting into the end zone.

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Wisniewski didn’t let it get away, pouncing on it in the end zone and the Bison led 21-10 with 58 seconds left. The junior linebacker dropped into pass coverage on the play until he saw the fumble.

“Then the ball came out and I got there and made a play,” Wisniewski said. “I would expect every linebacker to make that play. Sprint to the ball and don’t stop until you hear the whistle. I think everyone would have handled that play the exact same way.”

The Grizzlies responded with an important field goal nine seconds before halftime to cut the intermission lead to 21-13.

“That was frustrating,” Entz said.

But the damage was done. Hauck said Johnson twisted his knee on the strip sack, saying the facemask penalty that wasn’t called contributed to his injury. Replays confirmed officials missed the call.

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Montana quarterback Lucas Johnson winces after sustaining a leg injury after giving up a fumble against North Dakota State in the FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

Without Johnson, Montana had to turn to redshirt freshman Daniel Britt, who came into the game with limited experience, completing 17 of 23 passes in four games before Saturday. Britt may be the guy someday, but a second round playoff game in the Fargodome is not the ideal setting for success for a young quarterback.

For starters, the backup player in practice doesn’t get as many repetitions.

“There are a lot of things on the call sheet that he hasn’t run all week so you’re kind of limited there,” Hauck said. “

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Entz said NDSU changed up its defensive secondary look a little bit. Once TaMerik Williams scored on a 68-yard run midway in the third quarter to make it 35-20, the game had the look of being almost done.

Britt threw two interceptions. The Bison finished with three takeaways, a statistic that is usually doomsday in playoff football. That proved true toward the end of the second quarter.

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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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