Montana vs. NDSU Playoff Preview

North Dakota State takes on Montana at the Fargodome on Saturday in the FCS Playoffs. The game is at 2:30 Central.

It doesn't happen often that the North Dakota State football team gets a chance to avenge a regular season loss in the same year.  First of all, the Bison don't lose very often.  The Bison are 67-5 over the last five seasons so there haven't been a lot of losses to make up for.  Of those five opponents, only last year's Northern Iowa Panthers and these Montana Grizzlies have made the postseason.

The Bison have a rare opportunity to right a wrong from the beginning of the season.  You won't hear the coaching staff talk about revenge, but you can tell that it matters to the players.  There isn't a player on the Bison that doesn't want to win the game.  Capturing another national title is priority number one, but beating Montana is important.  Check out the game trailer below:

NDSU and Montana have both faced difficult circumstances over the course of the season, specifically at the quarterback position.  The Bison lost Carson Wentz midway through the season.  They replaced him with freshman Easton Stick and ripped off five straight wins.  NDSU won a share of their fifth consecutive Missouri Valley conference championship.  The Bison will have to go with Stick the rest of the way.

Montana lost junior quarterback Brady Gustafson (who lit up the Bison for 400+ passing yards in August) and didn't handle it as well.  The Griz had a 3-4 stretch in the middle of the season before stabilizing upon Gustafson's return.  The four losses were more than enough to force Montana outside of the top eight seeds.  Fortunately for Montana, unlike Wentz, Gustafson is back.  Since his return the Grizzlies have now won four straight games.

When the Bison have the ball:

It's going to be more of the same on offense for the Thundering Herd.  Run, run and run some more.  Not only has the Bison rushing offense kicked it up a notch after making the switch at quarterback, but the Griz arent' very good at defending it.  Montana is 80th in the country stopping the run.  They allow 184.7 rushing yards per game.  Montana also just lost their leading tackler and middle linebacker Kendrick Van Ackeren to a broken arm.

The Bison backfield is as healthy as it has been all season.  NDSU should have Bruce Anderson (also returning kicks), Chase Morlock, Lance Dunn and Darius Anderson fully healthy and available to spell starter King Frazier.  As much credit as Easton Stick gets for kick-starting the run offense, Bison running backs have accumulated 1,716 yards and 15 TDs.  They are a formidable group.

I would expect a very similar offensive game plan as the Bison used in Missoula in August.  After all, there's nothing wrong 427 yards of offense and 35 points.  If North Dakota State can cut down on turnovers (something that they tend to do well at home) their offensive output in the first game was fine.  NDSU ran the ball 45 times against 28 passes.  I'd be surprised to see Stick put it in the air 28 times, but if the Bison run 70-75 plays it's certainly possible.  Above all, NDSU wants to run the ball and control the clock, keeping the ball away form the Griz offense.

The Griz weren't a very good defense against NDSU in August, and they weren't very good during the season.  Losing their leading tackler isn't going to help.  For the Montana defense to have a chance, defensive end Tyrone Holmes will have to dominate.  Fortunately for the Bison, they've got the best offensive lineman in the country in Joe Haeg trying to stop that from happening.  It will be interesting to see where the Griz decide to line up Holmes.

When the Griz have the ball: 

If you ask Bison head coach Chris Klieman, the Montana sun rises and sets with Brady Gustafson.  It's hard to find tangible evidence against that claim.  When Gustafson was injured during the season, the Grizzlies fell apart.  He also set fire to the Bison defense in August.  The junior quarterback put it up 55 times for 434 yards and three touchdowns.  It was the best performance I've seen by a pocket passer against NDSU since 2009.

Gustafson certainly doesn't do it by himself.  Jamaal Jones, Ellis Henderson and Ben Roberts are as formidable a receiving trio as you'll find in FCS.  They were extremely successful a week ago against South Dakota State and beat up the Bison in Missoula.  A lot of people, Bison fans included, will think of Jordan Champion being beaten repeatedly.  Champion was out of position in more than one way, and it isn't likely to happen again.

The Bison will more than likely use their nickel package quite a bit to combat what Montana likes to do in the passing game.  That unit was a mess without CJ Smith and with Chris Board playing safety.  When you look at the 434 passing yards for Gustafson in August, remember that the Bison were missing the best cover corner in the FCS in CJ Smith.  

Smith is a true shutdown player on the perimeter.  Champion, one of the best nickel backs in the country was playing out of position on the outside.  Tre Dempsey was playing corner.  Robbie Grimsley was a true freshman playing in his first game, Tre Dempsey was playing corner and Chris Board was showing everyone why he was going to have to be moved to linebacker.  Jalen Allison was playing in his first game as well.  These might all sound like excuses, and they are.  They're also realities.  The Bison pass defense is better in every aspect.

Running the ball isn't a huge part of Montana's offense.  If they struggle to move the ball through the air initially and fall behind, the run becomes obsolete.  The Griz check in at 62nd in rushing offense in the FCS, and average only 3.7 yards per carry.  Running the ball against possible All American Nick DeLuca isn't how Montana is going to win this game.

Prediction:

The more I think about this game, the more clear it becomes: if NDSU and Montana hadn't played in August the Bison would be favored by 20 points.  If you look at what the two teams have become over the course of the season the Bison are the better squad.  Any other middle of the road Big Sky team would be expected to come into the Fargodome in a playoff atmosphere and get it handed to them.

The Griz are a rhythym team.  You saw what happens to them when they get out of sync in the second half of their game against the Jacks.  That was a home game against a team that the Bison took to the woodshed.  With the personnel that NDSU has in pass defense and the way that the Bison are capable of running the ball and playing keep-away, there might not be a team better built to disrupt the Griz than North Dakota State.  Factor in the Fargodome crowd noise and how it affects a no-huddle offense and you've got a big problem.

This game won't be a shutout, the Griz run too many plays and are too good offensively for that.  They're also just an "OK" team.  "OK" teams don't fare very well in the 'Dome during playoff time.  Bison roll.  Bison 42 Montana 24


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