BOZEMAN, Montana — As Jeff Choate said on Monday, the Montana State Bobcats have already seen the elephant.
Montana State’s 2018 season ended in striking fashion. The Bison posted a 52-10 win over the Bobcats, one of 26 home playoff victories this decade for the greatest dynasty in FCS history.
The superlatives seem to never end. North Dakota State is No. 1 and undefeated again. NDSU is riding a 35-game winning streak, the fifth-longest in college football history and the longest since 1957. The Bison have won 126 of their last 134 games, including beating 20 straight opponents ranked in the Top 25 and posting 13 straight wins against teams ranked in the Top 10.
North Dakota State is 14-0 this season and have won 27 straight games at the FargoDome overall, the longest current streak in Division I football. Since their first FCS Playoff appearance in 2010, the Bison are 34-2 in the post-season, including 26-1 in Fargo.
But none of those superlatives matter to the No. 5 seed Bobcats as Montana State heads to Fargo for its first semifinal appearance in the FCS playoffs in 35 years.
“We don’t need to go to the Fargo Dome and get a feel for it. We know what we are getting ourselves into,” Choate, Montana State’s fourth-year head coach, said earlier this week. “I think that does help us a little bit. I think last year we were a satisfied team that was happy to be there. We weren’t still hungry. Hopefully, we have a little fire in our bellies and are ready to go give them a better game.”
Not losing by six touchdowns is an almost certainty this year for the Bobcats against NDSU. But the decade-long dominance by a program gunning for its eighth national title in the last nine seasons is not lost on Montana State’s players, either.
“They are pretty impressive,” MSU senior defensive lineman and captain Derek Marks said. “Everybody talks about dominating but they have done it over and over. It’s impressive to watch. They are the standard.
“Everybody wants a shot at them, kind of like Alabama or Clemson, those big teams in the FBS. It makes playing them that much more fun. I think it’s pretty impressive. It’s what everyone is shooting for and we are trying to get there in a little bit of a different fashion with incremental progress each year.”
Although the winning has been status quo this season for the Bison, many of the names and faces leading this year’s team are new. Chris Klieman and most of his staff left for Kansas State after leading NDSU to a fourth national title in five seasons. Defensive coordinator Matt Entz is in his first year as North Dakota State’s head coach.
The Bison also went from Easton Stick, college football’s all time leader in wins by a quarterback with 49, to Trey Lance, the 2019 Jerry Rice Award winner as the top freshman in the FCS. Darrius Shepherd, Stick’s favorite target the last few seasons, is now playing for the Green Bay Packers.
The offensive line still features three first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selections in junior left tackle Dylan Radunsz, junior right tackle Connor Vollson and senior left guard Zack Johnson (all three All-Americans). But the backfield is no longer occupied by the explosive running back duo of Bruce Anderson and Lance Dunn.
And defensively, NDSU had to replace four-year starter Robbie Grimsely at safety and multiple-time All-American Greg Menard at defensive end.
“This is a machine,” Choate said. “It doesn’t matter who is the coach, it doesn’t matter who is playing quarterback. As long as that offensive line is what it is, they are going to be pretty good. It’s kind of plug and play from Coach Bohl through this current group with Coach Entz.
“A 35-game winning streak. I mean, it’s hard to wrap your head around how prolific this group is and what a tremendous accomplishment this is.
“When you combined atmosphere, scheme and talent, you have a pretty good outfit.”
It’s impossible to ignore all NDSU has accomplished. The Bison are one of the greatest teams in the history of American sports. All told, North Dakota State has 15 national titles, tied with Alabama and Yale for the second-most in college football history. But Montana State is determined to not be defeated by the entity before the action begins on Saturday afternoon.
“I think a lot of it is we have seen the brand and I think they beat a lot of teams just based off their reputation,” Marks said. “I think it’s a mental thing. And thankfully we’ve been there, we’ve experienced it. Now it’s time to ignore that and time to go perform.”
Montana State is not the same team either. Troy Andersen, MSU’s rushing quarterback in 2018, will likely not play on Saturday. Instead, sophomore Tucker Rovig will make the most pressure-packed start of his young career.
“We are not looking at it as the semifinals or that we are one game away from the big one,” Rovig said. “I’m just looking at it as another game. That was the big thing for me when we played Missoula (a 48-14 win in Bozeman in November). That was a big game, my first one but I just had to stay poised and calm during the whole thing.”
Montana State’s offensive line is a year older and a year more physically mature. Senior left tackle Mitch Brott is now an All-American who will start his school-record 50th straight game on Saturday. Junior guards Lewis Kidd and Taylor Tuiasosopo earned All-Big Sky honors for the first time in their careers.
Isaiah Ifanse has been on a wicked hot streak since returning from injury. The sophomore tailback rushed for 196 yards in a 24-10 win over Austin Peay last week, an MSU postseason single-game record. He has rushed for 406 yards and five touchdowns over the last three games.
Defensively, Marks is now playing on the inside of MSU’s defensive line. He is flanked by All-Big Sky junior nose tackle Chase Benson, graduate transfer senior Jason Scrempos formerly of Washington and fifth-year senior converted defensive end Marcus Ferriter. Senior defensive end Bryce Sterk is much more healthy than a year ago and junior Buck end Amandre Williams has provided welcome athleticism on the edge of MSU’s defensive front.
Although Andersen is out, the linebackers are playing with renewed health and vigor. Josh Hill was playing in his first game of the season after missing the first 12 with back surgery last year. This season, the fifth-year senior was a first-team All-Big Sky selection. Sophomore Callahan O’Reilly, a quarterback turned inside linebacker, leads MSU in tackles. And junior Daniel Hardy, Andersen’s replacement at Sam linebacker, has a tackle for loss in three straight games.
In the secondary, first-team All-Big Sky senior Brayden Konkol and classmate Jahque Alleyen anchor a back end that also features senior cornerback Damien Washington, a four-year contributor playing his best football down the stretch of his final season.
All the improvement will be put to the test on Saturday afternoon at the FargoDome.
“We want whoever they put in front of us and we are a hungry team but it’s all about us, the guys in the room,” Marks said. “I’m just thankful for the opportunity to be in the semifinals and playing these big games. We don’t want it to end here. We want more than just a semifinal win. We are just the next team up. We couldn’t be more excited to go to Fargo.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.