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'A huge challenge': No. 2 Montana, North Dakota State to put it all on the line in FCS heavyweight clash

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Posted at 5:44 PM, Dec 15, 2023

MISSOULA — It's only one more sleep before the game we've all been waiting for.

It'll be the final home game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium this season for the No. 2 Montana Grizzlies, as they get set to host the North Dakota State Bison in the FCS semifinal round on Saturday with a trip to the national championship game on the line.

Kickoff is slated for 2:30 p.m. in Missoula.

"You know, they're just outstanding," UM head coach Bobby Hauck said of NDSU. "So this is a huge challenge. A huge challenge. And we have our work cut out for us this week. It should be a great game Saturday afternoon."

NDSU and Montana are set to duel for the second straight year in the playoffs.

Only this time, the stakes couldn't be higher.

"They look like they're the team to beat in this playoff to me right now," Hauck said. "They're playing great, they're big and physical, they're really, really well coached. You know, they just do a lot of things right. That's why they're where they are."

Like Montana did against Northern Arizona, the Bison had some early season struggles with three losses in the regular season to South Dakota, North Dakota and reigning champ and top seed South Dakota State.

But the perennial contenders — who have won nine FCS national championships since 2011 — have turned it around and gotten hot with six straight wins, including road playoff victories over Montana State, and in a rematch blowout over South Dakota, as the highly efficient offense runs through quarterback Cam Miller, while the Bison, as they usually do, sport one of the top defenses in the nation.

"They're playing their best football right now," Hauck said. "They're not trying to play their best games of the year in September. I mean, like us, they kind of play to win those games, play a lot of people, try to stay healthy through September and October and come out with enough wins and then make a charge in November, and that's that's exactly what they did."

Hauck added of Miller and the Bison defense, "Well, you know, he's a good player, first of all. Second, he's an accurate thrower. He's a good athlete, he runs the ball well, but it's all set up off their run game. They're very multiple. And if you don't stop their run game, they'll just keep doing it. And so then the play-action pass the bootleg game, all that stuff plays off the run game.

"Well, the interception total (21, leads the FCS) is probably first. I think (Cole Wisniewski) is leading the nation himself (with eight). A lot of that's because they're getting pressure up front. And the other thing is how their front guys control the line of scrimmage in the tackling. So all those things I just said mean they've got a pretty good defense."

The Bison got the best of the Griz last year in Fargo in the second round of the playoffs by a score of 49-26, something Montana remembers and uses as fuel.

"It was a tough loss last year in the locker room," UM junior wide receiver Keelan White said. "At halftime, I know we were pretty close with them. But we've been looking forward to getting them again for quite a long time now. So we're excited. Just got to prepare as we do it, kind of just leave that in the back of our mind for now and get ready to go."

And for such a monumental game, with so much on the line, between two heavyweight programs with profound passion and tradition-rich atmospheres, the moment isn't lost on anyone at the exciting and historical scenario Saturday presents.

"It's a blessing," UM sophomore linebacker Riley Wilson said. "Everything I dreamed of when just as a little kid wanted to play college football. It's been awesome just to be part of this team. This team has worked so hard just to get to this moment and just for us to be in the position where we are, it's really cool to have and we just got to get it done."

NDSU is 5-4 all-time against UM and is 2-0 against the Grizzlies in the playoffs.

Two X-factors in the game that could play an impact are the sold-out crowd set to be on-hand for the game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium — UM won the last meeting in Missoula between the two programs in 2015 — as well as the recent news that NDSU head coach Matt Entz is leaving at the conclusion of the season to be an assistant coach at USC.

But for Entz and the Bison, they're excited to play the underdog role in Missoula in an attempt to get back to the championship game for the sixth fall in a row.

"This is going to be us versus everybody and I think our kids, they enjoy that, but it'll be fun," Entz said. "This is what college football is supposed to be, big games on the road and kind of, you know, the Bison versus everybody at this time.

"Our kids will be will be prepared on Saturday and I know theirs will be as well, and this is just going to be a great, great game for FCS football and college football in general. I think anytime you go on the road, you're away from home, you're sleeping in a hotel, there's all these excuses that you can come up with. I think that's one of the things we'll identify and probably talk quickly about, is there are no excuses anymore. The best teams find ways to win. And that's what we need to do."