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Cats, Griz back at it

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR
Daily Inter Lake | December 1, 2023 12:00 AM

The Big Sky Conference will start playing in the afternoon and go well until after dark Saturday, with four teams having Football Championship Subdivision second-round playoff games.

Leading off is Sacramento State, which kicks off with South Dakota at noon Mountain time.

Of greater interest around these parts is Montana State’s matchup with North Dakota State, the latest in many, but this one at Bobcat Stadium.

Montana then kicks off against visiting Delaware at 7 p.m., and Southern Illinois gets started against Idaho in the Vandals’ Kibbie Dome at 8.


Bobcats vs. Bison

North Dakota State ended Montana State’s postseason in 2010, 2018, 2019 and — in the FCS title game — 2021. 

Bobcat coach Brent Vigen was on the NDSU staff in 2010 when, a year after going 3-8, the Bison came into Bobcat Stadium and won a second-round game 42-17. 

Starting in 2011 they tore off five straight national championships. 

“That was the start,” Vigen said of the 2010 contest. “We snuck into the playoffs that year. What I remember about that day is it was really cold and it was a really raucous crowd, and that thought never left me.”

He was the offensive coordinator at Wyoming when the MSU job came open in the spring of 2021, and his hiring was obviously a best-case scenario for the Cats: Nine months later they were in the title game, losing to Cam Miller and the Bison 38-10 in Frisco, Texas. 

“He’s continued to get better,” Vigen said of Miller, now a senior.  “What’s happened in the two years (since) is he’s become their best player on offense. Then the backup (Cole Payton)… they’re getting a lot of mileage out of both those guys.”

Montana State gets a lot of mileage out of QBs Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers, or has in its eight wins. In two league losses Chambers didn’t see the field much.

“In our conference losses we didn’t get going right away,” Vigen said. “Starting fast is about coming out confident, making some plays early, certainly staying on the field on third downs. But again, understanding that if we don’t score on the first drive, the game isn’t over. If they go up on us, we need to respond.

“It’s about the defense being able to hold serve as well.”

Matt Entz, NDSU’s coach, remembers the 2021 Bobcats well.

“You see a lot of familiar names and a lot of familiar jersey numbers out there that are having great success,” he said.  “I think they’re really steady.  Very few teams are willing to try to run for 300 yards, but they will. And there’s a ton of explosive plays.”

Providing some of those is Wisconsin transfer Isaiah Davis, a tough runner and MSU’s leading rusher. It was pointed out to Entz that NDSU recruits Wisconsin well.

“Just the number of Wisconsin natives we have on staff, I’m sure we knew of him,” Entz said of Davis. “But when he committed to the Big 10 I’m sure we started looking elsewhere.”

A sellout crowd is expected at Bobcat Stadium.


Griz vs. Blue Hens

The 1993 Grizzlies were 10-1 when (gulp) Delaware came into Washington-Grizzly Stadium and won 49-48.

That was then, when the draw couldn’t have been worse for Montana: A team that had perfected the wing-T running offense, the likes nobody in the Big Sky Conference had seen.

This season’s Blue Hens run a pro-style offense, and lost starting QB Ryan O’Connor and backup Zach Marker on back-to-back drives in their last regular-season game, a 35-7 loss to Villanova.

Freshman Nick Minicucci took over and completed his first two passes against Villanova, one for a touchdown.  From there through a horrific start against Lafayette last week, he was 13 of 40 passing with five interceptions. 

By that point Delaware trailed 28-7. Then Miniccui got hot, completing 14 of his last 18 passes. The Blue Hens rallied to win 36-34. 

Watching from Missoula was Griz coach Bobby Hauck. 

“We watched both teams last week to get a jump on it,”  he said. “And you know, we felt Delaware was the better football team. It just goes to show you when you turn the ball over and do those sorts of things in particular in your end, you can get behind and get behind fast. 

“I think it shows what a quality team Delaware is to come back and get the win.”


Vandals vs. Salukis

Speaking of 1993, that’s the last year the Idaho Vandals hosted an FCS playoff game.

It was a 21-14 win over Boston University, for the record. The Vandals lost at Youngstown State in the semifinals the next week.

“This is what I envisioned when I took the job, having playoff games in the Kibbie Dome,” head coach Jason Eck said in Tuesday’s Spokesman-Review.

Now (we assume) he’ll have a fully healthy Gevani McCoy playing quarterback against Southern Illinois, which finished 4-4 in the Missouri Valley, but won a home playoff game last week while Idaho (and Montana, and MSU) had a first-round bye.

Saturday’s game will be the Vandals’ second on ESPN2; the rub is that the first nationally-televised game ended in a 23-21 loss to Montana.

“Our last game on ESPN2, we weren’t happy with how we played in the first half,” Eck said. “So, I think that’ll be a motivating factor for our team to come out and play our best football for four quarters.”


Coyotes vs. Hornets

Andy Thompson, first-year coach at Sacramento State, now has as many playoff wins as his predecessor Troy Taylor had in three remarkably successful seasons at the helm.

Last week’s 42-35 win at North Dakota was a showcase for quarterback Kaiden Bennett, whose cut-back, second-and-third effort, “help-me-out-guys” 4-yard run with 4:54 broke a 35-35 tie.

The Hornets were down five starters on defense and handed the Fighting Hawks just their third home loss in 28 games.

“They’re a resilient group,” Thompson, who played linebacker at Montana, said of his Hornets. “We haven’t lost two games in a row all year and we’ve had some injuries. and they keep fighting. And we’re going to do the same thing next week. I’m just glad I get to coach these guys another week.”

The reward is another road game. The 9-2 Coyotes are the No. 3 in the playoffs and boast a stingy defense led by MVC player of the year Brock Mogensen, a linebacker and the league's top tackler.


    Bobcats quarterback Tommy Mellott (4) looks for running room in the first quarter against Montana in the 122nd Brawl of the Wild at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)
 Casey Kreider