By JOEL CARLSON
The Grizzlies can have August. The Bison will gladly continue to own December.
North Dakota State, the No. 3 seed in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, jumped out to a 24-0 lead and powered to a 37-6 victory over Montana Saturday afternoon at Fargo, N.D., in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
The Bison returned two interceptions for touchdowns, scored on a 100-yard kickoff return for a third-quarter backbreaker and held Montana to 235 yards of offense, a season low.
North Dakota State, which is seeking its fifth straight national championship, won its 13th straight December game. NDSU will host either No. 6 Portland State or Northern Iowa next weekend in the playoffs’ quarterfinal round. The Vikings host the Panthers Saturday night.
“We played a very good football team today. We made a couple of errors early that cost us, then made some more errors that didn’t allow us to stay in the game,” said coach Bob Stitt, whose team, in playoff mode the last five weeks, lost for the first time since October.
“You’re never happy after a loss, but we’re proud of what our kids did this year and how we dug out of a season that wasn’t looking very promising.”
When North Dakota State (10-2) and Montana (8-5) met in Missoula in late August, a game won by the Grizzlies 38-35 on a 1-yard scoring run by Joey Counts in the closing seconds, Montana gained 544 yards of offense, 434 of that coming through the air.
That production was nowhere to be found on Saturday, as the Bison held the Grizzlies to 63 yards in the first half while jumping out to a 21-0 halftime lead.
After a 40-yard field goal early in the third quarter put NDSU up 24-0, Montana put together its only scoring drive of the game. The Grizzlies went 75 yards in seven plays and got on the board when Brady Gustafson hit Jamaal Jones on a left-side corner route. The two-point conversion attempt failed.
Bruce Anderson took the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, the only one allowed this season by the Grizzlies, to make it 31-6, and Montana, which did not move the ball into North Dakota State territory its final six possessions, went quietly into the offseason.
“It’s been a lot of fun. These kids have made it a lot of fun for me,” said Stitt, who was hired last December.
“We’ve been through some ups and downs, so it felt really good to bring this team together and get to this point, and be able to travel to Fargo and play against the four-time defending national champions. It didn’t end the way anyone wanted it to, but these players should be proud of where they ended up.
“I’m proud to be part of this program. We have some great things ahead.”
In the here and now, however, it’s the Bison’s world, at least for now.
After Montana opened the game with a harbinger of things to come — three plays, four yards, punt — North Dakota State, matching what it did in the teams’ first matchup in Missoula, went up 7-0 on its first possession.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Easton Stick, making his seventh start in place of senior Carson Wentz, who was lost for the season in NDSU’s 24-21 home loss to South Dakota in mid-October, kept the ball on a savvy read off a stretch power play and raced up the middle untouched from 49 yards out.
It was the eighth time in 13 games this season that Montana allowed its opponent to score a touchdown on its opening possession.
“You’ve got to be very disciplined on defense against a team like this,” said Stitt, whose team gave up 250 rushing yards, the fifth time Montana has allowed 250 or more yards on the ground this season.
“When they’re running stretch power, where they run stretch with the running back and the quarterback can run power, everyone has to be really gap sound, or they’re going to gash you.”
Montana was in North Dakota State territory its next two possessions, but both ended with Chris Lider punts. Defensively the Grizzlies forced the Bison into punts on three of their next four possessions. NDSU also missed a field goal that kept it 7-0 into the second quarter.
Gustafson’s first of three first-half interceptions, grabbed by Tre Dempsey at the Montana 47 early in the second quarter, did not hurt the Grizzlies. The Bison gained five yards in three plays and had to punt.
His second interception, on Montana’s next possession, was more damaging. Gustafson attempted to hit John Nguyen out of the backfield, but the running back never saw the ball, and Jalen Allison returned it 30 yards to make it 14-0.
After another three-and-out for Montana — the Grizzlies’ first-half possessions: punt, punt, punt, punt, interception, interception, punt, interception — North Dakota State went 70 yards in six plays, going up 21-0 on a 15-yard sweep around the right end by Anderson.
It was 21-0 at the half, with the Bison outgaining the Grizzlies 210-63. Montana, which rushed for almost 800 yards its previous four games, was held to just 15 on the ground. The Grizzlies would finish with a season-low six for the game.
Down 24-0 after North Dakota State’s first possession of the second half, Montana finally looked like the team that put up 57 points on Eastern Washington and 54 on Montana State.
Gustafson hit Jones for 15 yards on third-and-15 to get the drive started, then hit Ellis Henderson down the right sideline for 39 yards. Facing third-and-4 from the NDSU 20, Gustafson hit Jones from 20 yards out to make it 24-6.
After Anderson’s 100-yard kickoff return made it 31-6, Montana drove deep enough to give Daniel Sullivan a 49-yard field goal attempt with 6:27 remaining in the third quarter, but his kick was wide right, and the Grizzlies would not take another snap in Bison territory.
“We just couldn’t get anything going on offense today,” said Stitt. “They really took it to us up front. When you can’t run the ball and get into long situations on second and third down, and you can’t protect your quarterback, it makes it pretty rough.”
CJ Smith intercepted Gustafson early in the fourth quarter and returned it 32 yards for the game’s final points. North Dakota State, the FCS leader in time of possession, finished with 316 yards of offense and controlled the ball for more than 40 of the game’s 60 minutes.
One of 17 seniors playing in his final game, Jeremiah Kose led both teams with 19 tackles. Fellow senior Tyrone Holmes, one of three finalists for STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year, had one sack, bringing his career total to 34.5, second in program history behind Zack Wagenmann.
Jones capped his senior campaign with six catches for 90 yards. The transfer from Washington concludes his three-year Montana career with 3,011 receiving yards, leaving him seven behind only Marc Mariani in program history.
Montana opens its 2016 season with a home game against Saint Francis on Sept. 3.
Montana Sports Information