FRISCO, Texas — We are officially under the 24-hour mark until kick-off at the national championship in what will be an all-out brawl between two FCS powerhouses - No. 8 Montana State and No. 2 North Dakota State.
The Bison, who are playing in their ninth title game in the past 14 years, have been a speed bump for the Bobcats in recent seasons, but Montana State has made it very clear - the NDSU dynasty ends Saturday.
“We’ve been here and we’ve set out to win a national championship," senior defensive end Daniel Hardy said. "We’ve been trying to do that for three years, and we’ve fallen short. I’ll feel accomplished when we come back with the trophy, but until then, we still have a job to do.”
Montana State’s defense will have their hands full this Saturday taking on one of college football’s top rushing offenses.
Averaging nearly 274 yards on the ground, the Bison rotate through an arsenal of backs, which is led by Tamerik Williams and fullback Hunter Luepke.
“Not much has changed," senior defensive end Amandre Williams stated. "NDSU is NDSU. They want to run power. They want to run the football downhill. Big, physical line. That’s kind of their identity.”
Luepke’s versatility at the fullback position has shined this postseason. In a semifinal match-up against James Madison, the 6-1 junior recorded a season-high 114 rushing yards while also hauling in three receptions for 89 yards and two touchdowns.
“His ability to play fullback - if that means he’s blocking on the power play or on the perimeter," MSU head coach Brent Vigen explained. "His ability to line up in the wing position and be a real threat there. When they throw him back at tailback and give him the ball, that’s such a rare combination and he’s a guy that I know has our complete attention.”
Without an NFL-caliber QB leading the Bison’s offense like in years past, that position has also seen some rotating. Both Cam Miller and Quincy Patterson have been splitting snaps this season – each with a very different style of play.
“Cam Miller - he’s got the ability to extend plays," Vigen dissected. "Patterson - you know, he’s really hard to handle in the run game particularly, but more than capable in the passing game, and then you throw them both out there at the same time and now I think you’re preparing for three different things. Two different guys, and then the situation where they can be out there on the field at the same time.”
Montana State has already seen one Missouri Valley defense in South Dakota State, but the Bobcats know NDSU brings a different element.
“They’re a good defense," senior wide receiver Lance McCutcheon reiterated." They’ve been proving that for a very long time. We’ve played them the last two years, and they’ve gotten the best of us.”
As the top-ranked defense in the FCS, only allowing11 points per contest NDSU's game plan is simple: stop the run.
This season they’ve kept teams to about 83 yards on the ground, which for perspective, is less than one-third what Montana State’s offense has been averaging.
“We’re going to need to have the best game we’ve had up front," senior offensive lineman Lewis Kidd stated.
However, some good news for Bobcat fans.
Running back Isaiah Ifanse, along with defensive tackle Chase Benson and defensive back Ty Okada have been practicing this week and will play in Saturday's championship.
“We’ve been ready to compete for a national championship, and to accomplish a goal that hasn't been done in 37 years is pretty special for us," McCutcheon added.
The FCS championship kicks off this Saturday at 10 a.m. MT on ESPN2.