I am going to dig a little deeper than I did with the previews on the last two regular season games against Mo. State and So. Illinois (BTW, my So. IL preview, was spot on). The playoffs are a heightened experience with their one and done format. Also, NDSU predominantly plays non-MVFC (Missouri Valley Football Conference) teams in the playoffs (25 of the 30 opponents over the last nine years are outside the conference). We have only faced Eastern Washington and Montana in the regular season as non-conference foes. We have also played in them in the brackets. So, to many of you, these playoff teams come with some mystery. How good (or bad) are they?
The Montana State Bobcats are in the Big Sky conference; the conference the Fighting Hawks are leaving to join the MVFC. According to the Sagarin ratings the Big Sky is the third rated FCS conference behind the MVFC and the Colonial in strength. This year they were very top heavy with E. Wash., Weber State and Cal-Davis being seeded playoff teams. Montana State won its' last game of the season against arch rival Montana, stopping the winning touchdown from the one yard line by causing a fumble. They made the first round by being 7-4 w/l and Montana got to stay home at 6-5 w/l.
We faced three common opponents this year. They opened their season at home against Western Illinois. Bozeman is one of the hardest venues in FCS football to play at (think of an open aired Fargo-dome). It was a hard fought game with the Bobcats squeaking by 26-23. Next they went on the road to SDSU without their star QB, Troy Anderson (who ended up playing two downs with a hand in a cast). They were creamed 45-14. Lastly, they played Cal-Poly at home in their ninth game of the season. They withstood a 4th quarter 21 point charge by the Mustangs and held onto a 49-42 win.
These three games highlight the separation between the Bison and the Bobcats. The statistics are stark in contrast. Montana State averaged 313 total yards of offense, ran for 205.7 (very respectable), passed for 107.3 (bad) and scored 29.7 points (this is more points than what the yardage would indicate, something they did all year). Their defense allowed an average 430 total yards (bad), 238.3 rushing yards (bad), a 191.7 passing (better than average) and 36.7 points (very bad). Thus they had two one score wins and a blow out loss.
The Herd averaged 392.3 total yards on offense, 272.7 yards rushing (very good), a 119.7 passing and scored 34.7 points against these same teams. These total yards and passing figures are under our yearly averages, but against Cal-Poly the game was over by half and the W. IL game was over at the beginning of the 4th quarter (we played lots of subs in both games). We shined even better on defense. We held these opponents to 286.7 total yards, 82 yards rushing, 204.7 passing yards and 9 points. Against all other opponents these three teams averaged 449.8 total yards, 231 yards rushing, 216.8 passing and 34.1 points. Remember my first building block of Bison Championship football is playing exceptional defense. This is what it looks like statistically.
The nations leading rusher, Joe Protheroe of Cal-Poly, averaged 175.3 yards per game against everyone other than the Herd. He only got 57 against Code Green (one third his average)! Against the Bobcats he ran for 215 yards. As a team they got 369 yards (Cal-Poly averaged 355.7 YPG rushing against teams not named the Bison). The Bozeman crew basically gave these good offensive teams more than what they normally generated. The Bison defense castrated them. You need to ask yourself, are the Bobcats going to shut down the Bison offense when they couldn't against these three common foes and is the Bison defense going to start leaking like a sieve at home?
Another key indicator going into this Saturday's game is how did the Bobcats match up against any other playoff bound teams? They played E. Wash. and lost at home to the Eagles 34-17. The gang from Cheney WA roughed up the crew from Bozeman for 490 total yards, including 179 on the ground. They also held them under their season average rushing figure of 236.4 (17th nationally) to 155. Since there was only a plus one turnover ratio for the Eagles, this loss didn't come about because of turnovers.
The other playoff team on Montana State's schedule was at Weber State. The Wildcats have been described as the Big Sky's version of the Bison. They play tough, sound hard-nosed defensive football. On offense they try to run the ball down your throat with an in- your-face physicality. They led the Big Sky in total defense (321.4 YPG, 20th in FCS), scoring defense at 20.8 PPG (15th in nation) and rushing defense (114.6 YPG, 17th in FCS). The Bobcats mustered only 221 total offensive yards (171 yards under their yearly average against all other foes). They were about 70 yards under their normal per game rushing figure, 168 versus 236.4 and only scored 17 offensive points (they scored the other 7 points on an interception). Can a juiced-up home playoff Dome crowd inspire the Code Green unit to this same level of play?
Lastly, Montana State beat no other playoff teams in the regular season. They only beat one team with a plus .500 record (Montana at 6-5 w/l). Their overall strength of schedule on the latest Sagarin ratings (including their playoff game with Incarnate Word) was 148.7. As a comparison point, James Madison (a potential Bison bracket foe) has a Sagarin opponent rating of 152 compared to the Bison's 134.2. So the Bobcats played a competitive FCS schedule. They lost by 10 or more points to the ranked playoff teams and they played flip the coin games against middling teams (won by 3, 1, 7 and 4 points and lost by 7). They blew out the three bad teams on the schedule by 23 (Wagner), 20 (Portland State) and 28 (No. Colorado). The combined Sagarin Ratings of these weak teams were 203, putting these opponents in the bottom 20% of Division One teams and their win/loss records were 10-22. So their season's DNA? They got blown out by the very good teams, won 4 out of 5 close games against teams in there general strength range and kicked the bad teams.
Their head coach, Jeff Choate, is very good and has remolded this team closer to his liking over the last three years. The previous coach had led the Bobcats into "soft defenses" and tricky-dickey offenses (with lots of emphasis on passing) while having to play outdoors in a cold climate come November and beyond in the playoffs. This strategy has kept this proud FCS program out of the playoffs since 2014 when they suffered a 47-40 loss to SDSU in the opening round. Giving up 47 points made the old guard Bobcat fans heads spin. After another year of no defense in 2015, they brought in Jeff to right the ship.
This group will come to the Dome sky high and ready to play. The Bison need to match their intensity and dominate the lines of scrimmage as did SDSU, Eastern Washington, and Weber State against the Bobcats. If we do, we will get the same results, a comfortable win. Montana State, when all is said and done, is a good FCS team (ranked as the 18th best playoff eligible squad by Sagarin). However, they have played above their team stats as I will show below.
* In total offense they generate 378.3 YPG (64th out of 124 teams), which they have turned into 30 PPG (points per game), which ranks 45th in the nation. This disparity between yardage and scoring ranks isn't coming from specialty teams or defensive scores. They have been resourceful.
* The key to moving this Bobcat Team is the run game. They average 236.4 YPG (17th in the FCS). This is all the more amazing because they aren't a balanced offense with an advanced passing game, 114.8 YPG (114th in FCS).
* They are very average in sustaining drives. Their third down conversion rate is 35% (74th in FCS) and they only converted 7 of 17 fourth downs (41% and 85th in FCS). This has affected their time of possession, which ranks 84th in the FCS at 28 minutes.
* Everything is very average on the defensive side of the equation as well. Total defense is at 402.3 YPG (72nd in FCS) and scoring defense allows 26.5 PPG (52nd in FCS). Again the scoring is less than the yards would dictate. Montana State has done a lot of bending without breaking on the defensive side of the ball.
* They allow 178.2 YPG rushing, which ranks 65th in FCS and 224.1 YPG in passing (79th in FCS). These are very pedestrian numbers on defense. When added to the fact that they give up 3rd downs at a 41% rate (90th in FCS) and 4th downs at a 50% clip (68th in FCS), it is hard to imagine the Bison offense stalling out on a consistent basis come Saturday.
* Las Vegas has the Bison as a 28.5 point favorite. Sagarin gives the heard an 86% chance of winning and 30.76 on points.
In summary, this team reminds me of a cross between Mo. State and So. IL with an upgraded defense over both of them. They have the Saluki's rushing stats, but lack the sophisticated passing schemes and do not possess the same talent level at wide receiver. They are a mirror image of Mo. States total yards per game. Troy Anderson is a throw back at quarterback. He is is 6' 3" and 225 pounds. He was a 600-plus rusher at half back last year and played meaningful downs as a linebacker (as a true freshman). When last years returning starting quarterback forgot to go to class enough to keep his eligibility in place, they moved him to QB this year to "save" the season, which he has done (the easiest way to picture this is to put the Bison's Jabril Cox at QB).
The run schemes are a hybrid of what both the Bearcats and the Salukis showed the Bison. They run option, but it isn't vere or wishbone. They run quarterback draws and power as well. They have an excellent shifty freshman running back (almost a 1,000 yards) who is a lot like D J Davis of So. IL (1118 yards on the season). Even with all the progress Montana State has made this season, I still believe if the Bison play their game they will bring home a convincing 3 to 4 touchdown win as they did against Mo. State and So. IL. If the Bobcats can't move the ball on the ground early, this could be a long afternoon for them.