North Dakota State-Montana: An FCS Dream Match

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College Gameday visited Fargo, North Dakota, a week late. ESPN also whiffed badly by not giving the unfettered, Friday night spotlight to the Week 4 North Dakota State-Montana showdown.

This is the kind of game that showcases the best of what the Football Championship Subdivision has to offer. The Fargodome will be more electric than usual in what can fairly be described as a dream match.

They’ve met in the past–North Dakota State’s official Twitter account dedicated “Throwback Thursday” to remembering Bison wins in the six-game series.

Each program has, at one time, been the face of the subdivision. Imagine John Cena, today’s headliner, against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the top-billed act of the late 1990s. There’s the historical significance prevalent, but each team is at a championship level now, as well.

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Montana comes into Saturday’s game ranked No. 4, while North Dakota State is in its usual top spot.

North Dakota State’s credentials need to no rehashing: three straight national championships, no losses since Oct. 2012, wins over the Big Ten and Big 12 in five of the last six seasons.

But for those unfamiliar with Montana’s legacy, a quick overview: The Grizzlies won the Big Sky Conference championship 15 times between 1993 and 2009. The Griz won two national championships during that remarkable run and played in the title game seven times.

The last of those seven championship appearances came in 2009. I was covering FCS for CBS and NCAA.com at the time and was in Chattanooga for the title game.

Two things struck me: One, the Montana players talked extensively of contributing to the program’s legacy. The way each member of Bobby Hauck’s roster discussed Griz of the past was like hearing an Alabama linebacker talk of upholding the standard set by Derrick Thomas.

Two, Griz fans are serious about their team. We’re talking SEC serious.

It rained in Chattanooga the day of the title game, and turned to snow just before kickoff. As the wet, cold mix came down, I was enjoying some brisket at a barbecue joint just outside of Finley Stadium. I looked around and saw quite literally saw

A server working the crowded restaurant noticed it to and commented to one of the Griz fans. He joked that Chattanooga was “Missoula South.”

Coincidentally–or not–I’ve read similar remarks made by Bison fans about Frisco, Texas, the new locale of the FCS Championship Game.

The day following the 2009 title game at the airport, I was one of maybe 10 people in the crowded, single-terminal Chattanooga airport not destined for Missoula.

Though Montana and North Dakota are neighboring states, the distance between campuses is only slightly less than the distance between Las Vegas and Topeka. Nevertheless, Fargo is a whole heckuva closer to Missoula than Chattanooga, so I anticipate a maroon-and-silver invasion washing over the city.

Granted, my experience was the special circumstance of a championship game, but there’s a similar aura to this game. North Dakota State expects to spend the first weekend of January in Frisco; so does Montana.

Obviously, NDSU has the players to get there. So does Montana, starting with veteran quarterback Jordan Johnson and one of the most electrifying playmakers in the FCS, Marshall transfer Travon Van.

Montana teams have often boasted stingy defenses as well, whether under Don Read, Joe Glenn, Hauck or current head coach Mick Delaney. North Dakota State’s balance of the run and pass promises to test this year’s Griz defense.

The Griz opened the 2014 season against the architect of the North Dakota State dynasty, Craig Bohl. His Wyoming Cowboys outlasted Montana in a defensive slugfest, 17-12.

Though Montana lost, that game may be a barometer for how the Griz match-up with the Bison. First-year North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman was an assistant to Bohl each of his three championship seasons and has maintained the philosophy that built those teams.

Bohl is reshaping Wyoming in the same mold, emphasizing stout defense and a multifaceted run game.

But while Wyoming is in its infancy of embracing this style of football, North Dakota State has it down to science. The Bison were the nation’s best defensive team in 2013 and currently rank second behind only Albany this season.

The run game tradition backs like Pat Paschall, D.J. McNorton and Sam Ojuri so capably shoulder now falls on John Crockett. All he’s done this season is average 6.1 yards per carry and score six touchdowns–one of which slammed the door on Iowa State in Week 1.

So what if College Gameday isn’t in Fargo this week? And yeah, a vastly inferior USF-Connecticut game may get the Friday night spotlight. But North Dakota State-Montana is a true championship-quality showdown worth your time this weekend. Make a date for 3:30 ET/12:30 PT on ESPN3 to take in this dream match.