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Championship vision: All-business Brent Vigen has Montana State on true path

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Posted at 6:34 PM, Dec 14, 2022

BILLINGS — When you look inside the numbers, Brent Vigen’s tenure as head football coach at Montana State is a model of consistency. But this year it's more like dominance.

Vigen’s Bobcats aren’t just winning. They’re flattening everything in their path.

The stakes, of course, are raised Saturday as fourth-seeded MSU (12-1) gets set to face No. 1 South Dakota State (12-1) in an FCS semifinal playoff game at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, S.D. But the Bobcats enter the game on an absolute roll following a 55-7 rout of William & Mary in the quarterfinals last Friday — and with a 35.5-point margin of victory in their past four games.

A berth in the national championship is on the line. It’s a goal the Bobcats placed at the top of their list after falling 38-10 to North Dakota State in last year’s FCS title contest.

“Going back to January, the immediate thought was to get right back where we were down in Frisco, Texas,” the businesslike Vigen, 47, told MTN Sports' Brandon Sullivan recently.

“To go after a national championship you’ve got to believe it, you’ve got to think it, you’ve got to see it.”

The Bobcats can surely see it at this point, and part of that is Vigen’s ability to take a program that was already trending toward national prominence under previous coach Jeff Choate and turn it into what might be the country’s best squad.

Ask yourself this: Of the four remaining teams in the playoffs, which looks the best from top to bottom?

In two seasons, Vigen has a 24-4 overall record, the best start of any MSU coach. His five playoff wins are a school record. He's dropped just one conference game and has yet to lose at Bobcat Stadium.

The Cats enter the semifinal round riding a 10-game winning streak. As a credit to both Vigen and Choate, the team has won 26 of its past 31 games and (not that it matters this week) 20 in a row at home, the longest active streak in the FCS and the longest in school annals.

Of particular note, MSU’s running game has been, well, unstoppable. Here is a numbers overload for the 2022 season:

The Bobcats are averaging 332.4 rushing yards per game and have scored 47 rushing touchdowns, which rank No. 1 in the FCS. Their 4,321 total rushing yards are the most in a single season in school history. MSU’s offensive line has been retooled due to graduation and injury, but the scheme and technique employed by line coach Brian Armstrong have mattered more than experience.

This season, the Cats have single-game rushing totals of 554 (at 72-28 win at Cal Poly), 439 (a 55-21 win vs. Montana), 388 (a 33-25 playoff win vs. Weber State), 359 (a 40-17 win vs. McNeese State), 355 (a 38-35 win at Eastern Washington) and 347 yards (a 43-38 regular-season win vs. Weber State).

Quarterbacks Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers have accounted for 1,893 rushing yards and 30 TDs on the ground. Chambers’ total of 18 ranks in a tie for third nationally.

What about turnovers? MSU has lost just three fumbles all season, and the offense has given the ball away just four times in its past nine games.

And oh yeah — star running back Isaiah Ifanse is his old self again after missing nearly an entire year following knee surgery. Last week against William & Mary, Ifanse ran for 162 yards (on 11 carries) and two touchdowns while becoming MSU's all-time rushing leader.

Vigen came to MSU with a reputation of a “quarterback whisperer,” and it wasn’t a secret why. At North Dakota State and later Wyoming, Vigen helped develop QBs Carson Wentz and Josh Allen into first-round NFL draft picks.

So far, his tenure at Montana State has been marked by a huge rushing output. It’s not necessarily surprising considering his pedigree as an assistant under ex-NDSU and current Wyoming coach Craig Bohl, but let’s face it: Mellott and Chambers are first and foremost here to help MSU’s ground game take your soul, not dazzle you with their arms.

When Vigen took over the program, a solid foundation was in place. He’s only built it from there.

“Obviously we inherited a team that had a lot of talented, hungry players,” said Vigen, who won three FCS titles coaching under Bohl at NDSU. “We’re in a community that loves its Bobcats. We’re in a state that loves its Bobcats. All of those things coming together is what I’ve had the good fortune of being a part of.”

He added: “First team meeting, there’s no real script for it because you don’t know the guys. A lot of wide eyes, for sure. What I remember telling them is, ‘Our goals with this program are going to be pretty clear. We want to beat the Griz, we want to win the conference title and ultimately win a national championship.”

The Bobcats thrashed archrival Montana on Nov. 19, which helped them win a share of the Big Sky Conference title, the program’s first since capturing three straight under Rob Ash from 2010-12. Two of their three goals are already in the bag.

The stakes are raised this week against No. 1 South Dakota State, which has won 12 straight games in its quest to make a return trip to the championship game. MSU beat the Jackrabbits in the semifinals last year.

The Bobcats have been a model of consistency under Vigen. But this year it's more like dominance. And MSU has one more goal it's focused on achieving.

“It’s win or go home,” Vigen said, “but we’re in it to win it.”