North Dakota State has become something of a mythical team at this point. The Bison have won four consecutive NCAA FCS National Championships, a frankly unbelievable feat. After just edging out the Illinois State Redbirds in last year’s championship game, Chris Klieman is looking to lead NDSU to their fifth-straight title this season. On the other side of things, Montana was looking to open up the 2015 college football season with a huge upset. An FCS power in their own right, The Grizzlies have one of the best home-field advantages not just in FCS, but in college football as a whole, and despite the poor air quality in Missoula on Saturday, the stands at Washington-Grizzly stadium were rocking. It was an exciting, high-scoring battle between two perennial title contenders, but when it was all said and done, Montana pulled off a big upset against North Dakota State, edging out the Bison at the 11th hour, 38-35.
This game started out much like North Dakota State’s last game ended: with a quick touchdown. After receiving the opening kick, the Bison scored in just 4:21, putting up a score on a 27-yard touchdown to Chase Morlock, who beat the secondary on a wheel route. Montana would strike back though, scoring a touchdown of their own on a 7-yard strike from Brady Gustafson to Jamaal Jones. After a Griz field goal, NDSU’s Carson Wentz went to work on bolstering his early season campaign for the Walter Payton Award, rushing for his first of two first half touchdowns. This series of events would essentially repeat itself, with UM putting another field goal up on the board and Wentz scoring his second TD on the ground soon after.
The high scoring affair would not stop just because the half was winding down. Gustafson threw his second touchdown pass of the game, completed by a stellar catch by Ben Roberts, who also hauled in the subsequent two-point conversion attempt. The Bison would respond, with Carson Wentz passing for his second TD pass of the half, his fourth overall score at this point, to Zach Vraa. Despite missing a field goal as time expired in the second quarter, North Dakota State held the lead headed into halftime, 28-21.
The third quarter was seemingly an entirely different game when compared to the first half. After the electric offensive displays in the first half, the second half started out with a much stronger defensive presence. North Dakota State was unable to score through the duration of the period, however they did force the second turnover the game, an interception late in the period. The Grizzlies were able to tie the game via a 62-yeard pass play from Gustafson to Ellis Henderson. Outside of that major play, however, the offenses were mostly stagnant for the duration of the third quarter, with Montana even punting on a fourth down and manageable distance (new head coach Bob Stitt had chosen to go for it on fourth down three times prior to this occurrence).
The Bison took back the lead at the start of the fourth quarter, as King Frazier busted off a 44-yard catch and run to set up first and goal, and quickly followed that up with a 7 yard touchdown run, giving NDSU a 35-28 advantage. After a failed drive by the Grizzlies, it seemed as though the Bison would all but run the clock out, until a botched handoff led to the first takeaway of the game for Montana. The Griz got into the redzone but were unable to score a touchdown, settling for a field goal instead, cutting the lead to four with under three minutes to play in the game. The Grizzlies got the ball back with 1:39 left on the clock after a third down stop, and after a solid drive and a gutsy fourth down conversion earlier in the drive, the Griz scored from one yard out on fourth and goal with just two seconds left to seal a huge win for the program.
It was a big day for North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, despite the crushing loss, especially in the first half. Overall, Wentz completed 57.1% of his passed for 198 yards with 2 touchdowns through the air, as well as 2 more on the ground. He finished with a passer efficiency rating of 140.1 for the game. King Frazier was the team’s leading rusher and receiver on the day, rushing for 91 yards with a touchdown while also catching 2 passes for 54 yards. The Bison fed on takeaways defensively, forcing the three turnovers by Montana.
In his first career start, Brady Gustafson played quite well for Montana, all things considered, highlighted by the fantastic two-minute drill to end the game. He completed 30/55 passes for 434 yards and 3 touchdowns, along with an interception, giving him a 135.2 rating. The Grizzlies did not run the ball often on Saturday but when they did, it was effective; John Nguyen led the team with 86 yards on 19 carries. UM had two receivers with over 100 yards and a score against NDSU, with Ellis Henderson grabbing 7 balls for 133 yards and Jamaal ones catching 8 for 119. It was Joey Counts who ran in the game-winning score for the Griz.
Anyone who speaks of FCS football as if it is a lower quality, less entertaining game is speaking in fallacies. This season’s opener between two likely playoff teams hopefully set the standard for a great year in “the other” level of Division I college football. North Dakota State will look to rebound and continue their quest for a fifth straight title on September 12, when they return home to Fargo to take on Weber State. Montana will look to continue their momentum on September 5 when they host Cal Poly.