BOZEMAN, Mont. – Moments after Montana State finished off its 31-17 semifinal win over South Dakota State to clinch a berth in the FCS national championship game, someone in a Montana State stocking cap and hoodie came running out of the Bobcat Athletic Complex behind the north end zone of Bobcat Stadium, shouting.
“Five-point dogs – can you believe it?” he said as he sprinted towards the thousands of fans that had swarmed the field. “How were we five-point underdogs in this game?”
Considering this was eighth-seeded Montana State’s 12th straight home win and came a week after they hammered undefeated, top-seeded defending national champion Sam Houston, it was a good question.
The Bobcats pulled off a convincing and well-earned win over the Jackrabbits in Saturday’s FCS semifinal to reach the title game for the first time since 1984. They shut out SDSU in the second half, running over the Jacks defense to send a raucous crowd of 20,457 into party mode as Alabama’s “If You’re Going to Play in Texas” blared over the speakers.
For an unseeded South Dakota State team that reached the national championship in the spring season, made an impressive road run through the playoffs and ended up playing 25 games in 2021, it was a gut-wrenching loss, among the most painful in program history.
“These type of things hurt even more because of the lofty goals,” said Jacks coach John Stiegelmeier, whose team finishes the season 11-4 and the year 19-6. “I told the players after the game, this has to hurt. But that’s OK, because that meant it was important.”
It was SDSU’s first loss in an outdoor road game since the 2017 semifinals. That had been the first time the Jacks had a chance to create a North Dakota State vs. South Dakota State national championship game. This was the second. The Jacks are now 0-4 in road semifinal games, while Montana State will face the Bison in Frisco on Jan. 8. First-year Bobcat coach Brent Viger is a former Bison player and assistant coach.
Montana State was playing without star running back Isaiah Infanse and a handful of other key players, while South Dakota State saw All-American running back Pierre Strong return from a concussion suffered last week to bring the Jacks to virtually full strength. But the Bobcats’ dominant defensive line wreaked havoc on the SDSU offense after halftime, while 6-foot-freshman quarterback Tommy Mellott spent the whole afternoon running away from the Jackrabbit defense. He carried a whopping 34 times for 155 yards and two touchdowns, while throwing for 229 yards and two more scores.
“There was nothing new this week,” Mellott said. “We knew our best running back was out, but we trusted what was going on, trusted the guys up front and trusted the coaches. I feel good – 34 carries is a lot, but that’s what we had to do today. I have three weeks to get healed up.”
The Jacks were impressed with the freshman quarterback, who his teammates have dubbed “Touchdown Tommy,” much to the youngster’s chagrin.
“We saw every play that they ran today on film,” said Jacks linebacker Logan Backhaus, who had seven tackles in his final game. “We just got out-executed. We missed some tackles, made some errors on defense and that’s all it took. He’s a great player. He runs hard, makes the right reads and doesn’t make mistakes.”
Trailing 24-17 in the fourth quarter, SDSU quarterback Chris Oladokun was intercepted by Simeon Woodward, and just four plays later, Mellott found Lance McCutcheon for a 17-yard strike to make it 31-17.
The Jacks would threaten again, but were pushed backward into a fourth and goal from the 26-yard line, and though there was still 3:20 to go, their turnover on downs there spelled the end.
The Jacks outgained MSU 439-409, but were just one for three in the red zone and struggled mightily in the second half. Strong rushed for 94 yards, but Isaiah Davis was held to 13 yards on nine carries. Oladokun was 23-of-35 for 315 yards but was sacked three times.
“That’s an awesome defense,” said Jacks center Wes Genant. “They played really physical. There’s a lot of things we can always execute better, whether it’s play-calling or something we’re doing up front, but football is a fickle game. One wrong thing on any play can result in what happened to us in the second half. (The Bobcats) played really hard, and I’m excited to see what they do in Frisco.”
Daniel Hardy had two sacks for the Bobcats, giving him 16 for the season. Big Sky defensive player of the year Troy Anderson had 10 tackles in his final home game.
MSU seemed impressed with the Jackrabbits, as the mutual respect between the programs was evident as they shook hands after the game and in the postgame press conferences. But the Bobcats certainly don’t seem to have surprised themselves. When they woke up this morning, they had every intention of sending the sellout crowd home happy.
“Credit to South Dakota State, they’re a good football team,” Hardy said. “It wasn’t so much that we had to change anything in the second half, we just had to do what we were doing better. We had a good game plan, we just had to stick to it. That’s all it was.”
This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: SDSU football’s playoff run ends with 31-17 loss at Montana State