By ERIC TABER
The Montana Grizzlies’ (8-4) 23rd foray into the FCS postseason continues on Saturday with perhaps the most enticing matchup possible, a rematch with the four-time FCS champion North Dakota State Bison (9-2) in Fargo.
The 2015 Grizzlies under first year head coach Bob Stitt enjoyed it’s coming out party against the Bison back on August 29, when the showcase showdown was seen by roughly a million people live on ESPN as part of the network’s “FCS Kickoff”, which the Grizzlies won 38-35 in Missoula.
Now, 98 days later, the two teams meet again in the FCS playoffs on December 5, with a 1:30 p.m. MT kickoff set from the Fargodome. Tickets are available at griztix.com or at the Adams Center Box Office.
THE GAME: As if this matchup between two storied FCS programs needed more attention, the knockout rounds of the NCAA Division I Playoffs continue with both No. 16/17Montana and No. 2/3 North Dakota State seeking a return to the National Championship.
With its backs against the wall, the Griz have been playing their best football of the year over the past four weeks, riding a wave of momentum that saw the Griz pile up 111 points against its two main rivals (EWU & MSU), and earn a trip to the second round of the playoffs with a mostly convincing 24-17 home win over South Dakota State.
The Bison have continued to win in impressive fashion since falling to the Griz in August, with only one other blemish on its record: a rare 21-24 home loss to South Dakota in Fargo on October 17. Including that win by South Dakota, NDSU has lost only four times in the friendly confines of the Fargodome since 2010.
WATCH: Griz fans nationwide can tune in to watch the Griz take on the Bison from Fargo on ESPN3 and the WatchESPN mobile App. The game can also be seen on DiretcTV’s ESPN College Extra. Trey Bender will do the play-by-play, with Jay Taylor serving as color analyst.
ESPN3 is available from participating internet service and television providers on watchESPN.com.
SERIES HISTORY: Despite the relatively close proximity, Saturday’s game will be only the ninth meeting between the two schools, and the third in two years. The all-time series between the Griz and Bison is tied 4-4 after Montana’s 38-35 win in August. In 2014, the Bison won the only game played between the two in Fargo 22-10. The Griz won the first three meetings between the teams in 1914, 1921, and 1941.
LAST MEETING: In a game few Montana fans will forget, Joey Counts scored on fourth and goal with two seconds remaining on a 1-yard ISO run off left tackle to rally the Griz to a 38-35 upset victory over the Bison in Missoula.
A record crowd at Washington-Grizzly Stadium of 26,472 and a national television audience on ESPN were on the edge of their seats as Counts’ touchdown capped off a 16-play, 80-yard game-winning drive that started with 1:39 on the clock.
Brady Gustafson had one of the best games in Grizzly history in his debut under center for the Griz, throwing for 434 yards, the 17th best passing outing in Montana history.
HOLMES WATCH: Tyrone Holmes was announced as one of the top-three vote getters for the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year Award (formerly the Buck Buchanan Award) this week, and will be flown to Frisco, Texas, for the award ceremony on January 8.
The other two candidates for the prestigious award also hail from the Big Sky Conference with Patrick Onwuasor of Portland State and James Cowser from Southern Utah rounding out the top three.
Holmes has had a banner season at defensive end for the Griz, putting up defensive numbers that would make some players happy over a career. Currently Holmes leads the nation in sacks with 17 and is tenth in the nation in tackles-for-loss with 23.
His career stats place him second on Montana’s all-time sack list with 33.5, needing 4.5 more to move into first ahead of Zack Wagenmann. Holmes also sits tied for second in tackles-for-loss with 48.5 in his career, needing five more to again surpass Wagenmann in that category.
JONES WATCH: Jamaal Jones is close to cementing his place as Montana’s greatest all-time receiver.
Jones has 2,921 career receiving yards and sits in second place on Montana’s all-time list, needing just 98 more yards to pass Mark Mariani’s all time mark of 3,018.
Jones also has 1,117 yard this season, the sixth best receiving season in Montana history behind Etu Molden in fifth place with 1,145.
COACHING HISTORY: In his first year at Montana, Coach Bob Stitt becomes the fourth Grizzly head coach to advance his team to the playoffs his inaugural year. Bobby Hauck (’03), Joe Glenn (’00), and Mick Dennehy (’96) are the only other coaches to do so, with Joe Glenn leading the Griz to the 2000 championship game in his first attempt.
COACH STITT’S KEYS TO THE GAME: “Score more points than them,” said Coach Stitt during his weekly radio show. “It’s exciting to go out there and play in a great environment. They’ve got a great fan base, and it’s going to be a lot of fun for our players. We just have to go play hard, and play our brand of football and see how the chips fall.”
ANOTHER WINNING SEASON: Montana’s win over Eastern Washington on Nov. 14 guaranteed Montana its 29th winning season in the past 30 years.
GRIZ IN THE PLAYOFFS: Last week’s game against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits marked Montana’s third-straight trip to the FCS playoffs, familiar territory for the Montana faithful.
Montana holds the record for most overall playoff appearances at 23, has the second most playoff victories with 32 (Georgia Southern holds that record with 45) and holds the record for most consecutive appearances with 17 (1993-2009).
ALL-BIG SKY TEAMS: The Griz placed 18 players on All-Big Sky Conference teams this season, with 12 landing on the 1st, 2nd or 3rd teams – tied for most in the league with Sothern Utah.
First Team Offense – Jamaal Jones, First Team Defense – Caleb Kidder, Herbert Gamboa and Tyrone Holmes. Second Team Offense – John Schmaing, Daniel Sullivan and Kendrick Van Ackeren. Third Team Offense – Ellis Henderson, Third Team Defense- Jeremiah Kose and Nate Harris. Third Team Special Teams – Connor Strahm and Ellis Henderson. Honorable Mention Offense – Ben Roberts, Devon Dietrich and John Nguyen. Honorable Mention Defense – JR Nelson, Yamen Sanders and Chris Lider.
GRIZ IN THE TOP 10: Montana ranks in the nation’s top-10 in the following categories in 2015: First Down Offense (10), Fumbles Recovered (6), Pass return defense (9), Team sacks (5), Field goals per game (Daniel Sullivan) (4), Receiving yards (Jamaal Jones) (7), Sacks (Tyrone Holmes) (1), Tackles-for-loss (Tyrone Holmes (10)
GUSTAFSON’S GUN: In his first season under center, Brady Gustafson has managed to put together one of the best passing seasons in Montana history, and he’s only played in six games.
“Gus” has thrown for 1,755 yards in 2015, the 27th best year ever for a Montana QB. Again… he’s only played six games this season. In total, all three Griz QBs have thrown for 3,408 yards this year, the sixth most in school history, if they were all thrown by the same QB.
BIG ATTENDANCE IN THE BIG SKY: Montana once again leads the FCS in attendance this season, averaging 24,139 fans at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, with an accumulated total of 168,975 fans during the 2015 season to date.
FARGO TAILGATE: The Grizzly Scholarship Association will be hosting a tailgate in Fargo this coming Saturday (12/5/15) when the Griz take on NDSU in the 2nd Round of the FCS Playoffs. Join us starting at 12:30pm Central Time (2 hours prior to kickoff) inside the Bison Corral, look for the Griz Flag flying above our tent. Food will be available and there is a full service bar located within in the Bison Corral complete with big screen TVs.
Bison Corral is located near the southwest corner of the Fargodome between lots E and G.