Following the first week of the season, North Dakota State found itself in an unfamiliar spot: still searching for its first win.
By the sixth week of the season, NDSU found itself on the wrong end of a 24-21 upset at the hands of rival South Dakota. Just three games into the Missouri Valley Conference season, the Bison already had two losses. Between 2011 and 2014, NDSU lost three total games and won four total national championships.
The compound the issue, the 4-2 Bison lost star quarterback Carson Wentz to a season-ending injury in the USD loss. Wentz had surgery on his throwing (right) wrist and is out indefinitely. Rather than panic, North Dakota State switched its mentality.
“We’ve been in playoff mode ever since Carson Wentz got hurt,” NDSU second-year head coach Chris Klieman said. “We were 4-2 and we lost what we think is the best player in FCS football for the season. We had to rally around a young quarterback (Easton Stick) and a defense that was starting to improve. We’ve been in playoff mode since Week 6. Our guys play well with our backs against the wall.”
North Dakota State’s season narrative is similar to the one of the team that handed NDSU that season-opening loss. Montana pulled the upset of the four-time reigning champions on August 29 in Missoula in front of an ESPN national television audience in Bob Stitt’s first game as UM’s head coach. The 38-35 victory sent Montana to the stratosphere for two weeks before the joyride quickly came crashing down to earth. UM lost its next two non-conference games and starting quarterback Brady Gustafson to injury in the process.
Montana eked its way to 5-4 with Gustafson on the shelf with a broken leg. The 6-foot-7 Billings West product returned three weeks ago and Montana has not lost since, posting impressive wins over Eastern Washington, Montana State and South Dakota State in the process. The Griz face North Dakota State in the second round of the playoffs in Fargo on Saturday afternoon.
“Both teams have gone through adversity and that’s a credit to both programs,” Klieman said. “You look at Montana’s tradition and our tradition. We are two programs who expect to be in the playoffs and expect to compete for championships. And it has to be next man up.”
In the first half of the initial matchup in Missoula, Wentz was the most dominant player on the field. The 6-foot-6 future NFL Draft pick threw two touchdowns and rushed for two more as NDSU scored on all four of its first half possessions to take a 28-21 lead to halftime. In the second half, Wentz suffered a sprained ankle that visibly slowed his ability to run. The Bison managed just seven more points.
When Wentz first had surgery, a rough timetable of six to eight weeks was given although NDSU deemed him out for the season. Saturday will bring the eight-week mark since surgery. Klieman said Stick would still be the starter.
“There’s not a chance Carson would play,” Klieman said. “Easton has done a phenomenal job of stepping in and leading us to five straight victories. Hat’s off to Easton as well as all the offensive coaches and all the offensive players for rallying around that young quarterback.”
Stick is a redshirt freshman from Omaha, Nebraska. He earned first-team all-state honors his final two seasons at Creighton Prep, piling up 60 total touchdowns his final two high school seasons. He traveled all season last year while redshirting. He is considered Wentz’s heir apparent next season and he has a five-game head start already.
“He can do everything to be honest,” Klieman said. “He’s a really smart kid, a really cerebral kid. He mimics Carson Wentz in the way he prepares. I knew the stage wouldn’t be too big for him. He’s a great athlete with an exceptional arm.”
Stick has completed 60 percent of his 95 passes in five starts (19 passes per game) for 826 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. NDSU is averaging 313.4 yards rushing in Wentz’s absence. Stick is averaging 6.8 yards per carry and has rushed for 423 yards and four touchdowns since assuming the starting duties.
“They are probably going to be a little more run heavy but Easton can throw it,” Stitt said during his weekly news conference on Tuesday. “He’s a great athlete. He’s started five games and he’s the second-leading rusher on their team. They can do a lot of quarterback run stuff off the action, quarterback power and they have a great running back in King Frazier. You have to worry about both of them.”
With Stick at the helm, NDSU is running 71 plays per game, including 52 rushing attempts per outing. The Bison are rolling up 478.6 yards of total offense per game over the last five weeks. The offensive is averaging 40.8 points per game since Wentz went down.
“You have to play physical against them,” UM senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes said. “You can be doing the right assignment but if you are not physical with them, they will get four or five yards and keep marching down the field on you. The key is to play physical with these guys.”
Montana’s pass rush is among the best in the nation. The Grizzlies have 41 sacks, tied with Stony Brook for the second-best mark in the nation. Holmes leads college football with 17 sacks.
Montana is giving up 184 rushing yards per game this season, but 134 during its current four-game winning streak, including 3.3 yards per carry. Montana gave up 339 rushing yards in a 35-16 loss at Portland State. The Griz gave up 267 yards on the ground in a 42-16 win over North Dakota. UM surrendered 253 rushing yards in a 24-21 overtime loss to Weber State at home.
Last week, UM peaked, giving up 117 yards on 41 rushing attempts (2.9 yards per carry) in a 24-17 first-round playoff win over South Dakota State. Take away a 31-yard scramble on a broken play by SDSU freshman quarterback Tarion Christion and the Jackrabbits averaged just 2.1 yards per carry.
“The Big Sky is known for throwing the ball a little more than the Missouri Valley,” Holmes said. “I think our defense wants to be known for stopping the run but unfortunately, we haven’t done too well against that. But last week, we really showed we can be a run-stopping defense and we can be successful doing that. I think it helps as far as our mentality. We want to be an aggressive defense and we want to pride ourselves on stopping the run.
“The hope is to stop them on early downs and get them to predictable situations on third and long where we can pin our ears back and get to the quarterback.”
In Montana’s first win over NDSU, the Griz ran 92 plays and Gustafson threw for 434 yards and three touchdowns. Stitt acknowledged that NDSU will try to slow the pace of the game by possessing the ball. Klieman acknowledged that if Montana runs 90-plus plays, the Bison are in trouble.
Leading up to the season-opener, no one knew what to expect out of Montana’s offense. Stitt gained a strong offensive reputation during 15 seasons at Colorado School of Mines. The CSUM film was the only tape NDSU had to watch. The offense looked much different and more explosive operated by a towering quarterback with a rocket arm throwing to Jamaal Jones, Ellis Henderson and Ben Roberts, a trio of wide receivers among the best groups in the FCS, Klieman said.
On Saturday, the teams have a rematch with much more on the line. Montana is trying to stay hot and extend the season of 17 seniors. North Dakota State is gunning for an unprecedented fifth straight national title.
“We talked in the locker room right after the game to not let one game define us,” Klieman said. “We had too many great leaders, too many good players who have won a lot of great games for us and I knew they wouldn’t let it define them. ‘
“We just need to play better, bottom line. I don’t think you need to reinvent the wheel and change everything you’re doing. We have been pretty successful for the four years I’ve been here playing good solid defense. We didn’t play exceptionally well (in Missoula). We will play better on Saturday.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.