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McFeely: Five things to watch in the Bison-Montana State game

Mellott, Luepke, Watson, Andersen among players on whom to keep an eye. Also, don't forget the iffy Frisco weather

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FRISCO, Texas — This space in 2019 was used to remind readers of the long history between North Dakota State and Montana State on the football field. The Bison and Bobcats were about to play in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals and while it was written that game was the biggest between the programs since 1976, it wasn't the biggest in history.

The importance of 1976 was that NDSU and MSU met in the NCAA Division II semifinals. The Bobcats won that game and went on to win the national title.

But the biggest game in a series that dates to 1914 was deemed to be the 1966 slobberknocker when NDSU was the defending national champion and ranked No. 1 and Montana State was ranked No. 2. The College Division powers met on Oct. 8, 1966 at Dacotah Field in Fargo.

NDSU scored three touchdowns in the second quarter to take a 28-20 halftime lead and held on in the second half to win 35-23. The Bison did not win the national title that year, losing two games late in the season.

The teams meet again Saturday, the 37th game between NDSU and MSU, this time in a contest that trumps them all. The Bison and Bobcats will play at Toyota Stadium for the FCS national championship.

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It's for the whole shebang. All the marbles. The whole enchilada. The entire ball of wax.

That makes it official: This will be the biggest game in the 107-year history between NDSU and Montana State.

It looks like an entertaining matchup with enough interesting storylines to fill three weeks of media coverage since the playoff semifinals, starting with Montana State head coach Brent Vigen being a former player and assistant at NDSU.

The Bison are a 7.5-point favorite on most betting sites, meaning the bookies believe it's going to be a tight affair. And the bookies are rarely wrong.

Here are five things to watch in the NDSU-Montana State game, scheduled for an 11 a.m. Central kickoff.

All eyes on Touchdown Tommy

Tommy Mellott is the story of this FCS playoffs. The freshman replaced starting quarterback Matthew McKay during the Montana State bye week between the end of the regular season and its first playoff game and led the Bobcats to the title game with dynamic running and timely passing.

As the seconds ticked away during Montana State's semifinal playoff victory over South Dakota State, Mellott sat on the bench and cried tears of joy.

It's a story that's almost too good to be true.

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The question for the Bobcats is whether Mellott can continue his magic against the Bison.

One thing is certain: We are going to find out.

Mellott carried the ball 34 times against the Jackrabbits, finishing with 155 yards rushing and two touchdowns. He also completed 10 of 15 passes for 233 yards and two TDs. There's no reason to believe the Bobcats won't lean heavily on Mellott again.

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Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott evades a tackle by South Dakota State linebacker Adam Bock during an FCS semifinal game at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.
Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle / Report for America

One reason he carried so many times against South Dakota State is because star running back Isaiah Ilfanse sat out the game with a knee injury. It's expected Ilfanse will play Saturday — he's been practicing in Frisco — but how much he'll play and how effective he'll be remains in the air.

But why take the ball out of your best player's hands? NDSU effectively used Trey Lance as a running back in the 2019 title game against James Madison and Lance was the difference in the Bison's victory.

That is not to compare Mellott to Lance, but he's been too effective to not center the offensive game plan around him.

Who wins the war of attrition?

Ilfanse is just one of several players on which to keep an eye as they attempt to play in the title game after missing previous games with injuries.

He is a key one, though. The junior has 1,539 yards on the ground and allows the Bobcats to take some of the focus off Mellott. Ilfanse had two games of more than 200 yards this season (Portland State and Eastern Washington), had 176 against Tennessee-Martin in the second round of the playoffs and 109 against Sam Houston in the quarterfinals.

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Montana State head coach Brent Vigen said Friday he expects Ilfanse and two other injured starters to play against the Bison. Defensive tackle Chase Benson and defensive back Ty Okada both have been practicing the last couple of weeks after missing the semifinal game.

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NDSU wide receivers Christian Watson and Phoenix Sproles chat with former player Daniel Polansky at the Toyota Stadium complex on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

"The plan is that all three of those guys who didn't play in that semifinal will be on the field," Vigen said Friday. "That's beauty of this three-week layoff, I think both teams can put their best team out there as possible."

The Bison, too, will have some starters return to the lineup after missing their semifinal victory over James Madison.

NDSU head coach Matt Entz said Friday he expects receiver Christian Watson will play, which is a major addition to the Bison offense. Watson has the size and speed to stretch the field vertically, something that's been missing with him sidelined the last three games with a hamstring injury.

Two offensive linemen who were out (or mostly so) against James Madison will also return. Starting center Jalen Sundell didn't play against the Dukes because of a knee injury and starting guard Nash Jensen played only three plays before being sidelined from an ankle injury recurrence.

Running back Dom Gonnella, who's missed the last two months with an injury, will also be available after returning to practice, although how much he'll play after sitting out so long will be a question.

"Having all those people back doesn’t mean anything if you can’t execute and be efficient with the football and play well," Entz said Friday. "That’s our No. 1 objective."

True. But you'd rather have more bullets than fewer.

Shocker: Weather forecast iffy

There are two truisms about Frisco that the Bison, their fans and the media that cover them know.

1) The weather in north Texas in early January often isn't very good.

2) The playing surface at Toyota Stadium ranges from OK to godawful.

Guess what? Saturday might be a convergence of those factors.

Although as the game has gotten nearer, the weather forecast improved. What looked almost a sure morning of rain showers has been reduced to a maybe.

The forecast for Saturday morning is for a 30% chance of showers.

But, we'll go with it.

If the grass field at Toyota Stadium gets wet and the precipitation falls through the game, it will be interesting to see how the soccer field holds up under a football game. There have been two FBS bowl games at the stadium in the previous few weeks and, judging by TV, the footing didn't look great in either game.

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Grounds crew members work the field at Toyota Stadium on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in preparation for the FCS Championship game in Frisco, Texas.
David Samson/David Samson / The Forum

Disclaimer: Nobody is saying Saturday will be a repeat of the 2013 title game when the grass didn't have roots and chunks of the surface were coming up on every play from kickoff to final horn. That was an abomination.

But wet grass is never ideal and soggy conditions could have an effect on the game. And the truth is, the Toyota Stadium surface is never top-notch for a football game anyway.

Who would it favor? Might be Montana State because moisture could slow some of NDSU's speed. The Bison are more dynamic offensively with Watson and Phoenix Sproles on the edge, plus Swiss Army knife fullback Hunter Luepke and running back Kobe Johnson.

Turnovers often decide who wins big games. NDSU won the semifinal contest against James Madison because the Dukes quarterback threw two interceptions. If a wet football leads to fumbles or interceptions, that could be the difference in the game.

Beast mode vs. beast mode

You looking for individual matchups to watch?

One might be Montana State receiver Lance McCutcheon against NDSU's cornerbacks. The Bobcats' most effective passing play against SDSU was Mellott throwing a 50-50 deep ball along the sidelines to McCutcheon. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound receiver used his size and strength to win every battle. He finished with five receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown against the Jacks.

A better one might be Luepke against Montana State standout linebacker Troy Andersen.

While it won't be a direct one-on-one matchup every time Luepke touches the ball, Andersen will play a big role in trying to stop the fullback who doubles as a wing tight end who doubles as a tailback.

At 6-1, 236 pounds with speed, Luepke is a load to tackle. James Madison had trouble doing so in the semifinals, and also had trouble accounting for him in pass coverage. He had 110 rushing yards, 89 receiving yards and two TD catches against the Dukes.

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North Dakota State's Hunter Luepke slips a tackle by East Tennessee’s Mike Price to score during their NCAA FCS quarterfinal football playoff game Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Forum Communications Co.

If he replicates those numbers against the Bobcats, it'll be a forgettable day for the blue and gold.

Andersen will play a major role in preventing that. He is an NFL prospect who has been invited to the Senior Bowl in February. At 6-4, 235 pounds Andersen is a rangy, athletic linebacker who can cover the field from sideline to sideline.

It's not the perfect comparison, but Andersen is roughly the same size as former Bison linebacker Jabril Cox and reminiscent of former NDSU linebacker Nick DeLuca. He covers that kind of ground.

It'll be incumbent upon Andersen to bring down Luepke if he gets the chance because the athletic Luepke thrives on breaking tackles and rumbling for extra yardage.

Luepke is a beast. Andersen is a beast.

If the two beasts meet one-on-one, it will be a sight to behold.

Leave nothing in the bag

Each national championship game in which the Bison have played is its own story, but there some common threads.

Among them: Either NDSU or its opponent often tries something new, something tricky, something that makes you sit up and say, "That's a pretty good wrinkle right there."

In NDSU's first title game after the 2011 season, it ran a successful fake punt against Sam Houston.

In the championship following the 2017 season, quarterback Easton Stick hit Darrius Shepherd on a 50-yard touchdown pass on a play the Bison hadn't shown all year. It was Shepherd's first touchdown of the year. The Dukes also ran a successful fake punt late in the game to keep a key drive alive.

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North Dakota State wide receiver Darrius Shepherd, left, and quarterback Easton Stick (12) watch the clock wind down during the NCAA Division I FCS championship game Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019, at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. David Samson / The Forum

The 2018 title game, Eastern Washington ran a fake field goal that resulted in a touchdown.

In 2019, it was the Bison catching James Madison off-guard with a fake field goal that went for a TD.

Expect one team to do something Saturday it hasn't shown all season. And it doesn't have to be a trick play, it could be a formation or play that's gone unused by the Bison or Bobcats until now.

If the Bison have Watson on the field, for example, they know Montana State will have to account for him. Does that leave another play unchecked?

With NDSU focused on stopping Mellott's running, could that lead to a misdirection or fake that allows another player to sneak into the open?

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