The records the Bison football program has attained, especially those in the playoffs, leave many absolutely speechless. Since appearing in their first FCS playoffs in 2010, North Dakota State has a playoff record of 41-3 in the playoffs. That record is good for a win percentage of 93.2%, nearly 15% higher than the next closest. Perhaps the most impressive statistic of all is that the Bison are 31-1 inside the Fargodome during the FCS postseason. One of those 21 teams and 31 victims are the also playoff historic Montana Grizzlies.
During the 2015 season, the Bison and Grizzlies opened each of their seasons in Missoula, M.T. with a terrific back-and-forth affair. The Griz ultimately prevailed 38-35, clinching the victory on a last-second touchdown. The Bison, however, got a chance at redemption and rolled Montana in the second round of the playoffs 37-6 on the way to their 5th consecutive national title. While there may be no redemption factor this time around, the Bison will still be welcoming a Montana squad that has the FCS record of 17 consecutive playoff appearances.
Former NDSU running back Bruce Anderson returns a kick-off for a touchdown against the Montana Grizzlies in a 2015 playoff game at the Fargodome. Photo Courtesy | NDSU Athletics
“We’re going to start with another program that has a great tradition, great success,” Bison Head Coach Matt Entz said of Montana. “Have a ton of respect for Coach Hauck and his program. We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
The Grizzlies are coming off a come-from-behind victory over Southeastern Missouri State in the first round. Trailing 24-3 with 8:41 to go in the third quarter, Montana was in dire need of a spark. That spark would come from the special teams, particularly from Malik Flowers and Junior Bergen. Flowers’ 80-yard kick return and Bergen’s 58-yard punt return for scores ignited the comeback for the Grizzlies as they took home the 34-24 victory.
“Special teams were a critical role,” Entz said of Montana’s first-round game. “Having a kick return and a punt return within about a 3 or 4-minute time span on the clock was critical as far as turning the tide and gaining momentum in that game.”
The leader of the Montana offense is seventh-year quarterback Lucas Johnson. After starting his career at Georgia Tech in 2016, Johnson then transferred to San Diego State in 2020 before being granted an extra year of eligibility and coming to Missoula. Johnson has passed for 2,163 yards and 21 touchdowns this season and threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns last week in the comeback.
“He can make every throw,” Entz said of Johnson. “Throw off his back foot, he can extend plays, he knows what they want to do.”
While the Bison secondary is sure to have their hands full against the Grizzlies, they will now be without one of their top cornerbacks. Along with receiver DJ Hart, running back Dominic Gonnella and others, cornerback Marquis Sigle entered the transfer portal at the conclusion of the regular season. With a tight window to enter the portal, Sigle and others only have a limited time to enter forcing them to leave their team at an unfortunate time.
“It’s sad,” fellow cornerback Destin Talbert stated of Sigle. “A guy that a lot of us are close with. It feels like losing a brother, but football-wise everything stays the same. You’ve got to go out there and do your job.”
The departure of Sigle allows an opportunity for others, such as Jayden Price to receive more time on defense. Price, who was recently selected as an Honorable Mention for the All-MVFC team as a returner, will likely receive more defensive snaps this weekend.
“We need to lean on his experience,” Entz claimed. “There’s going to be more reps for him and there’s not a young man that’s more prepared than him.”
Along with the transfers, the Bison have also had to deal with a handful of injuries in recent weeks. After sustaining a shoulder injury on November 12 against Southern Illinois, Hunter Luepke has not returned to the field. While Coach Entz didn’t officially rule out Luepke for Saturday, it remains doubtful he will play.
“Anticipate he won’t be available this weekend,” Entz clarified. “Still working with some other medical experts outside of our region to see just what the severity of the injury is and what his next step is.”
The Bison have also dealt with their share of injuries to the offensive line as well. As right tackle Mason Miller and center Jalen Sundell remain out indefinitely, linemen Brandon Westberg, Grey Zabel, and others have stepped in to fill those roles.
“It’s always next man up mentality,” senior guard Nash Jensen stated. “Coach Larson, he always makes sure everybody’s prepared no matter what situation we’re in. He’s not just focusing on the starters but those guys that always have their chance to get into those games.”
If the Bison advance to the quarterfinals for the 13th consecutive season, they would host the winner of Samford and Southeastern Louisiana the following weekend. Although a win is never a guarantee, the Bison have won 38 straight games following an open week including 21 at home. Now that it’s playoff time, the Bison are extra eager to get back on the field following a week off.
“High energy,” Talbert said of the team’s mood. “You get a little antsy. You get to watch football for a week and you’re not the one playing it so I think we’re all ready to get back out there.”
The second-round matchup between the Bison and Grizzlies will kick off from the Fargodome at 2:30 on Saturday, December 3. ESPN+ has exclusive coverage of the game that will be available to subscribers on ESPN.com and the ESPN app. On the radio, you can listen to Rob Hipp on the play-by-play and Bison legend Phil Hansen on the commentary at Bison1660-AM or 107.9 The Fox.