BOZEMAN — Montana State football coach Jeff Choate knows the challenge that awaits when his Bobcats tangle with the nation’s top-ranked North Dakota State Bison on Saturday in Fargo. But, as he’s said many times with a smile since taking over the Bobcat program almost three years ago, “I never back down from a fight.”
After the team’s first FCS Playoff win since 2014 on Saturday, a 25-14 victory over 24th-ranked Incarnate Word, the Bobcats draw North Dakota State.
Choate calls the Bison “arguably the standard bearer for all of college football, not just the FCS, when you look at the success that they’ve had. Nobody can really match what they’ve done over the past decade, and you can include Alabama in that. Coach (Chris) Klieman is the perfect guy for that job.”
NDSU owns six of the last seven FCS titles, and the program’s run of Division I dominance took root in Bobcat Stadium eight years ago. In NDSU’s first post-season appearance as an FCS program the Bison beat Robert Morris 43-17, then came to Bozeman and beat the Bobcats 42-17.
Eastern Washington ended the team’s season a week later, but 12 months down the road the Bison celebrated the first of their Division I championships. Since the week before that snowy, freezing day in Bozeman in 2010, NDSU is 28-2 in the post-season.
Quarterback Easton Stick, who Choate calls “just a winner,” triggers NDSU’s relentless offense.
While the Bison tend to stampede opponents on the ground, rushing for 265.4 yards a game, Stick is one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks. He throws for 190.4 yards a game and completes 60 percent of his passes.
Lance Dunn (67.9 yards a game) and Bruce Anderson (67.0) spearhead a multi-faceted ground game.
Jabril Cox leads a suffocating North Dakota State defense.
A Sam linebacker that Choate says “is good enough to play in any conference in college football,” has eight tackles-for-loss and four sacks.
He is the team co-leader with 68 tackles, sharing that honor with safety Robbie Grimsley.
In their careers, Cox and Grimsley have combined for 432 tackles, 32.5 behind the line of scrimmage.
The Bobcats counter with a team that has improved throughout the season.
Sophomore quarterback Troy Andersen leads an efficient offense that runs on just short of two-thirds of its scrimmage plays.
Still, Andersen has completed 60 percent of his passes in the five games without an interception. Andersen has rushed for 20 touchdowns this year, which ties a Bobcat record, and averages over 100 yards on the ground a game.
The team’s trick to success in recent weeks has been a turnover turnaround. MSU is plus-12 in turnovers in the last seven games after starting the season minus-2 in the first five.
The Bobcats have been particularly adept at taking fumbles away from the opponent.
After not recovering an opponent fumble in the first seven games, MSU has pounced on 11 in the last five games.
After losing mid-season games at Weber State and Idaho State in consecutive weeks, the Bobcats have ripped off four straight wins.
It is MSU’s longest win streak since 2014, the last campaign that culminated in a playoff appearance. While the task of facing North Dakota State is daunting, it’s not unusual for this Bobcat team. MSU has faced the tournament entries seeded second, third and fifth. Just 13 months ago, the Bobcats also faced this year’s fourth-seeded team, as well.
Kickoff Saturday is at 1 p.m. The game is televised on ESPN3 over the internet.