Survive and advance.
The simple mantra when it comes to playoff football was at the crux of North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman’s press conference as his team prepares for FCS Second Round action Saturday against Montana State.
The Bobcats overcame a slow start offensively to beat Incarnate Word at home last week. Now Montana State gets to visit the Fargodome for the first time, as they have hosted both contests between the teams in the FCS.
Not much has changed for the Bison since the two teams met in Bozeman in 2010 in the same round. That day, D.J. McNorton ran for a NDSU playoff record four rushing touchdowns.
The biggest reason that record is unlikely to be touched Saturday is the number of runners the Bison utilize. The backfield trio of Lance Dunn, Bruce Anderson and Ty Brooks has combined for 16 rushing scores on the year.
Neither leads the team in rushing touchdowns, as quarterback Easton Stick has 11 touchdowns with his legs.
NDSU holds the 10th ranked rushing offense in the nation. But on the other side, the Bobcats rank 17th.
And leading the Bobcat rushing attack is quarterback Troy Anderson. When the Bobcat offense was moving in the first round, it was through a mix of Anderson searching for an edge coupled with a power run game from freshman running back Isaiah Ifanse.
The pair ran for 228 yards on Saturday.
“Anderson is an exceptional player. He is a guy who can get downhill on you; he can beat you to the edge,” Klieman said. “He is too good of a player to be shut down.”
A curious question surrounding the Bobcats is whether they will pull out some of the exotic looks on offense that appeared against the Cardinals. Early in the game, it was not uncommon for Montana State to line up in the wildcat formation.
“They have a lot of different ways to be creative to run the football,” Klieman said. “That is how they have had success.”
The downside was that the Montana State offensive line never seemed settled in those situations. The Bobcats were penalized three times for a false start in the first half, and that was at a quiet Bobcat Stadium. If the noise of the Fargodome has anything to do with it, the Bobcats could be behind the chains early.
For a rushing team, getting behind the chains is trouble. Anderson, a converted linebacker, will have to throw under duress should the Bobcats get into second- and third-and-long. The Bison defense has totaled 18 sacks on the season.
The matchups to watch in the game will be who contains Anderson. Linebackers Jabril Cox, Dan Marlette and Levi Jordheim are three of the top four tacklers for the Bison. Cox is tied for the lead with 68 with safety Robbie Grimsley. The senior tends to crash down to stop the run.
As for the Bobcat defense, the numbers suggest the weakness is in defending the passing game. MSU gives up 224 yards per game in the air, compared to 177 on the ground. These numbers come with a pinch of salt given the Big Sky teams tend to air out the ball.
That said, an early September matchup against South Dakota State saw Jackrabbits’ quarterback Taryn Christion throw for over 300 yards against the Bobcats.
NDSU doesn’t throw often, but is efficient when they do. The most efficient receiver is tight end Ben Ellefson, who leads the team with seven touchdown receptions on just 12 catches.
Kickoff at the Fargodome is set for 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1. Winner of the game will play the winner of Duquesne and James Madison in the quarterfinals.