Stitt Happens to 4-Time Champs North Dakota State

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You are probably still catching your breath if you tuned into Saturday’s FCS Kickoff between four-time defending national champion North Dakota State, and the Bob Stitt-coached Montana Grizzlies.

If you missed it, pity. Everything to come in the 2015 college football season has a high bar to meet thanks to this year’s installment of the Week 0 showcase.

Bob Stitt’s long-awaited debut on the national stage could not have gone any better, as No. 12-ranked Montana scored in the final seconds to win, 38-35, over the top-ranked Bison.

Venture to say this was the biggest win for Montana football since the Griz defeated Appalachian State in a snow storm during the 2009 FCS Playoffs semifinals.

Some perspective on the magnitude of Montana’s victory: North Dakota State had not lost to an opponent outside of the Missouri Valley Football Conference since a 38-31 decision at Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals of the 2010 FCS Playoffs.

Perhaps Saturday marked a changing of the guard. Stitt’s offensive innovation looks ready to take Div. I football by storm. The Griz rolled up 544 yards of total offense on a defense that held opponents to 280 per game a season ago. 434 of those yards came through the air, a result of Stitt’s regular, four-and-five-wide looks. That’s nearly one-sixth of the total passing yards North Dakota State allowed in the 2014 campaign.

Meanwhile, Griz quarterback Brady Gustafson — who attempted all of two passes a season ago — is only going to get better the more comfortable he gets with Stitt’s system.

Gustafson struggled with overthrows customary of a first-time starter. He also delivered daggers out of the pocket with the poise of a veteran.

That has to be a scary thought for defensive coordinators who watched him complete 30 passes and score three touchdowns on what has routinely been the nation’s premier defense over the last half-decade.

For those familiar with Stitt’s body of work at Colorado Mines, like West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, Saturday’s result is no surprise.

There’s never any guarantee that a coach who flourishes at a lower level is going to find similar success trying the same schemes against greater competition, however. For example, air-raid guru Hal Mumme saw diminishing returns in his time at Kentucky after two, double-digit-win finishes at Div. II Valdosta State.

Stitt’s Div. I tenure will obviously be much easier to evaluate years from now — we’re all of one freakin’ game into his career at Montana! — but he couldn’t possibly have had a better start.

It didn’t hurt that his Montana team features a talented wide receiving corps. Pass-catchers aside from just 1,000-yard man Jamaal Jones stepped up to make huge plays.

Stitt’s explosive offense ensures Montana will put up points in bunches all season long, but the terrific, second-half adjustments defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak fell the four-time champs.

If the Griz are to play in their first championship game since the 2009 season, Gregorak’s defense complementing the high-paced offense will be why.

Montana routinely countered North Dakota State’s power-run game with eight defenders lined up in the box.

Such strategy demonstrated confidence in the defensive backs’ ability to defend would-be pass-catchers one-on-one, and the ability of the linemen and linebackers to match the ballyhooed North Dakota State blockers’ power. That confidence paid off in a big way, as the Bison scored just once after halftime.

Fitting Montana won in this way, as adjustment is the name of the game for Stitt to flourish at the D-I level. Not everything that worked at Colorado Mines will translate at Montana, but he’ll also have players capable of implementing new wrinkles.

Considering Bob Stitt has always been about innovation and adjustment, he should do just fine. He’s certainly off on the right foot.