The Bobcats used a humiliating end to the 2018 season as a measuring stick entering their fourth campaign under Jeff Choate.
For the last 385 days, Montana State worked, developed, improved and grew collectively, taking the proverbial next step their driven head coach had consistently proclaimed they would in their fourth year of his program.
Montana State hit a lull in October, losing two straight games to fall out of the Top 10 of the FCS STATS Top 25 poll. With their backs against the wall, a position the Bobcats seem to love, Montana State surged through November into December, fulfilling Choate’s prophecy in the process.
The regular-season came to a head with the most dominant win over rival Montana in more than 50 years. Then the dominoes in the 24-team FCS playoff bracket fell in favor of the fifth-seeded Bobcats. Austin Peay upset No. 4 Sac State in the Round of 16, giving Montana State consecutive home playoff games.
By the time the Bobcats finished off a 24-10 win over the Governors under the Bobcat Stadium lights last Friday, the rematch Montana State coveted was set.
MSU would travel to Fargo, North Dakota for the second year in a row, this time trying to measure up much more competitively against the greatest juggernaut in college football history.
Montana State’s 42-14 loss to top-ranked North Dakota State on Saturday was more respectable than a 52-10 blasting last season to be sure. But the gap remains startlingly wide between the Bobcats of the Big Sky Conference and the peerless Bison. That gap is substantial between the two-time reigning champions and everyone else in the FCS.
“That’s an awesome team, man,” Choate said after his team finished 11-4 including the first run to the semifinals of the FCS Playoffs since 1984. “We had no answers for some of their explosive players….I want to tip my hat to them and wish them the best of luck as they head to Frisco (for the FCS national championship game).
“All that being said, I’m tremendously proud of our team to take this next step and get into the semifinal round. We have been here (to Fargo) twice and we don’t have a great taste in our mouths.
“But as I told these guys last night, success has a lot of tests and one of them is failure. We have to continue to push forward. The seniors, they have been through a lot with me and we have been through a lot together. I’m so proud of them and I know they are not going to let one result define them as men.”
North Dakota State exacted its will instantly, marching 73 yards on 12 plays on the first drive of the game, knocking Montana State’s defense off the ball over and over again.
MSU tied the game at 7-7 early in the second quarter. But the Bobcats could not find any footing from there on.
NDSU’s untouchable offensive front blasted a Montana State’s defensive line considered one of the elite units in the FCS off the ball from start to finish. North Dakota State controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball from opening kick to final buzzer, out-rushing Montana State 318-148 and piling up 541 yards of total offense all told.
Bison redshirt freshman Trey Lance and his sophomore go-to target Christian Watson made a statement for those that consider NDSU brutish but not fast. Instead, a pair of touchdowns of more than 70 yards by Watson pushed the gap to two scores, a few more unbelievable plays by Lance continued pushing NDSU’s lead and the Bison never looked back while winning for an FCS-record 36th time in a row.
“It’s hard to even wrap your head around the success this program has had,” Choate said. “I think it’s a tribute to their athletic administration, the coaching staff, the community of Fargo and the state of North Dakota. This is not a one-man show.”
“We deserve to be in consideration on the national stage but we do not deserve to be in the national championship game yet,” Choate said. “That big prize is still out in front of us. But this is a tremendously resilient group of young men that really care about each other.”
The victory moves North Dakota State into the FCS national championship game for the eighth time in nine years. NDSU is undefeated in seven previous trips to the title game in Frisco, Texas. North Dakota State is now 33-1 at home in FCS playoff games and have won every home game at the Fargodome since a loss in the semifinal of the 2016 playoff to James Madison.
That loss is also the last time NDSU lost, period. Entering Saturday’s matchup, many wondered if this North Dakota State team was more vulnerable. Head coach Chris Klieman left Fargo to take the head coaching gig at Kansas State after leading the Bison to four titles in five years. Much of his staff went with him.
Quarterback Easton Stick and wide receiver Darrius Shepherd are now playing in the NFL. Running backs Bruce Anderson and Lance Dunn, four-year starting safety Robbie Grimsley and All-American defensive end Greg Menard all exhausted their eligibility.
But the Bison still have, bar none, the best offensive front in the FCS and among the best offensive lines in college football. A unit anchored by senior tackle-turned guard Zack Johnson, an All-American at both positions, and newly minted All-American junior tackles Dylan Radunsz and Cordell Volson helped NDSU average a robust 8.6 yards per carry.
Montana State did not give up a run of more than 11 yards on NDSU’s first two possessions. But when Lance hit Watson for a 75-yard touchdown in which the former high school sprint champion from Tampa, Florida simply ran by MSU senior cornerback Damien Washington, the floodgates opened.
“We put a nice drive together and scored and then in short order, the momentum changed again,” Choate said. “I certainly think that was a huge play in the game. The big plays, they are devastating but they also ground some things out on us.”
Watson took a handoff 70 yards for a touchdown one offensive play after hauling in the long TD reception for a score to take the tie game and turn it into a 22-7 affair.
“He’s a big receiver and he’s definitely one of the fastest guys we’ve seen this year,” MSU senior safety Brayden Konkol said. “He’s a really good player and he’s only a sophomore, too so he has a really bright future.”
NDSU still never had a run of more than 11 yards other than Watson’s rip but a second dominant drive of the first half capped by Jimmy Kepouros’ six-yard touchdown catch helped NDSU take a 29-7 lead late in the first half.
“At some point in time, you have to pick your poison,” Choate said. “It wasn’t straight man. We had some safety help on a couple of those. But if you are going to commit two guys to stop (Lance), you look at this prolific offensive line that they have, they have three really talented running backs and you couple that with their quarterback run game.
“Trey did a nice job of identifying matchups and that guy (Watson) just ran by us. I agree with Brayden said. That guy has next-level speed. We had a hard time containing him.”
Montana State earned a stop on the first NDSU possession of the second half. And an outside toss play to Isaiah Ifanse totaled 28 yards, MSU’s second-longest gain other than a 39-yard Ifanse reception on the touchdown drive, put Montana State into NDSU territory. But the drive stalled out.
MSU junior defensive tackle Chase Benson forced a fumble on the ensuring possession. Two plays later, sophomore Tucker Rovig hit senior Kevin Kassis for a 41-yard touchdown that cut the gap to 29-14 in NDSU’s favor with 6:27 left in the third quarter.
“It was a situation where we had man-to-man, safety rolled down, I had an inside fade and Tucker put a really good ball out there for me to get,” said Kassis, a senior captain who finished his senior season with 67 catches for 851 yards and six touchdowns.
Lance, NDSU’s Walter Payton Award finalist and the Jerry Rice Award winner as the top freshman in the FCS, proved worth of those accolades by helping the Bison slam the door.
On the next NDSU possession, scrambled around for more than six seconds, getting through at least four reads before throwing back across the field to a wide open Dimitri Williams for a 73-yard touchdown that gave North Dakota State a 36-13 lead with 4:46 left in the fourth quarter.
The MSU rush defense finally broke thereafter. Even though the Bison only scored one more touchdown, a 44-yard Kobe Johnson rip set up Lance’s second rushing touchdown and fifth total touchdown of the day for the final margin with 13:32 to play. North Dakota State had three more runs of more than 10 yards, eight total of at least that long. Lance had 64 yards on 11 rushes.
But the totality and completeness of NDSU’s offense — Lance completed 15-of-21 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns while four Bison rushed for at least 49 yards) was too much for a previously fearsome Montana State defense to handle.
“That just that was a better team,” Choate said. “We have to go back and do what we did last year: learn from this and try to add the right pieces to our roster and look at what we are doing schematically that can push us forward. We know where the bar is. You don’t have to look far to find it.
“But like I told these guys: I promise you we are going to get there. That’s our goal and we are not going to deviate far from it.”
The Bobcats entered the game on a six-game winning streak in which only one opponent rushed for more than 60 yards. MSU’s starting defense was giving up less than eight points per game over its last seven outings. That unit gave up a season-high in points and a season-high in yards against an FCS opponent. The rushing yard total surpassed even the numbers put up by Cal Poly’s triple option or Texas Tech’s Big XII offense.
Montana State’s offense scored 14 points against an NDSU defense that entered the game giving up 11.4 points per contest. MSU scored two touchdowns against a unit that gave up 16 touchdowns in its previous 14 games, total.
But a rush offense that came into the game averaging nearly 270 yards per game managed 3.8 yards per carry. Ifanse had rushed for 407 yards and five touchdowns in the last three games, including 196 yards last week. The sophomore managed 11 carries and 60 yards. Senior Logan Jones finished with 12 carries for 49 yards in the last game of his career. Sophomore wide receiver Mark Estes had a 26-yard gain on his first carry of the game. Aside from that run and Ifanse’s long scoot, MSU averaged just 2.4 yards per carry.
Rovig completed 13-of-22 passes for 150 yards, the touchdown to Kassis and an interception in the third quarter. MSU senior Travis Jonsen finished with six catches for 41 yards and also scored MSU’s first touchdown on a fourth down play out of a Wildcat formation on the goal line.
“Football is a game and we often talk about not letting a game define us as men,” Choate said. “We are not going to allow setbacks to deter us from our future goals and aspirations, whether it’s what these young men go on to do with their lives or what we continue to do pushing our football program forward.”