BOZEMAN — Montana State (11-2) is hosting its first semifinal game since 1984, when the Bobcats won their only Division I-AA national championship. Head coach Brent Vigen is the first coach in 21 years to lead a team this far into the playoffs in their first year. The Bobcats head coach is excited about the advantage of a full crowd at Bobcat Stadium against the 11-3 South Dakota State Jackrabbits.
“We have a venue here, a crowd base here that can really impact a game and I know (South Dakota State has) gone on the road back-to-back weeks and they haven’t been in that environment," said Vigen. "I think it was 2,000 something (fans) in Philadelphia (against Villanova) and it was a pretty sparse crowd in Sacramento (against Sacramento State), so that has to be a difference maker for us on Saturday.”
Freshman quarterback Tommy Mellott is making his third career start as No. 8 MSU gets set to take on the unseeded South Dakota State. Coming off the heels of a five-touchdown performance, there was an awful lot to like in start number two last week.
“Just put it somewhere in the vicinity and we’ll make plays and we did that a couple times," Vigen said of Mellott. "Shoot, his throw to Willie (Patterson) was a good a throw as you can make in that situation. I think it validates to the outside world, let's say, whether that’s fans or opponents, that hey this kid, beyond coach Vigen getting up here and saying he’s a quarterback, he’s a quarterback.”
South Dakota State went to the Spring 2021 FCS championship, where they were defeated by Sam Houston 23-21. Now, they’re knocking down the door of being in the same position this fall.
“They were obviously right on the doorstep of a championship last year, but they’ve been really close for a long long time," said the first-year head coach. "Coach (John Stiegelmeier) has done such a great job there. He actually took over my senior year playing. I don’t know if that dates him, or me, or both of us.”
Montana State will have the monumental task of stopping the Jackrabbits run game, which is anchored by senior running back Pierre Strong, who leads the FCS in rushing. He’ll hear his name called at some point in the 2022 NFL Draft. On the year, he is averaging seven yards per carry for 1,579 yards and has a whopping 17 rushing touchdowns. He can even pass, throwing for four touchdowns on the season.
“I think their offense certainly starts with the run game," said the MSU head coach. "(They're) very good up front, very good with the tight end in the running game and they have as good of a back combo I think as anybody in the FCS. We’re going to have to stop the run and we’re going to have to put pressure on the passer. That’s been our calling card all year. We have to be able to do that again this Saturday.”
South Dakota is ranked No. 86 in passing yards allowed and No. 11 against the run, similar rankings to the Sam Houston defense from last weekend. Sophomore linebacker Adam Brock has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Jackrabbits. He has 119 tackles and nine tackles for a loss on the season.
“For them defensively, it does start with their front. They play a lot of guys. They’re able to put pressure on the passer. They’ve been very effective against a lot of different run teams that make up the Missouri Valley (conference),” said Vigen.
Despite being a higher seed, the Bobcats are 3.5 point underdogs or more, depending on the website. The game is on on ESPN 2 with a noon kickoff time.