Tough loss

Bobcats fall to Bison 38-10 as Tommy Mellott’s injury deflates ’Cats national championship aspirations
Thomas Stuber — Skyline Sports
Monday, January 10, 2022
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ABOVE: Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott (16) throws deep against North Dakota State one play after suffering an ankle injury. Enterprise photo by Jason Bacaj

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Montana State linebacker Troy Andersen (15) levels North Dakota State receiver Christian Watson (1) in the first half. Enterprise photo by Jason Bacaj

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Defensive end Daniel Hardy (44) waits in the tunnel with his teammates ahead of the national championship game in Frisco, Texas. Enterprise photo by Jason Bacaj

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Troy Andersen (15) bursts through North Dakota State blockers to take down fullback Hunter Luepke (44). Enterprise photo by Jason Bacaj

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North Dakota State defensive end Jake Kava (54) rolls up on the right ankle of Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott on the first drive of the game. The injury ultimately forced Mellott out of the game. Enterprise photo by Jason Bacaj

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North Dakota State defensive end Tony Pierce hoists the championship trophy at Toyota Stadium after the Bison bested the Bobcats 38-10 on Saturday. Enterprise photo by Jason Bacaj

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LEFT: Montana State quarterback and senior captain Tucker Rovig (12) hugs teammate and tight end Ryan Davis (48) after the Bobcats fell to North Dakota State. Photo by Dean Hendrickson

FRISCO, TEXAS — For Montana State, Saturday played out like a nightmare. And for the Bison of North Dakota State, the afternoon was a pleasant coronation daydream they’ve experienced in nine of the past 11 years.

The MSU fans came out poppin’ on Saturday morning, with the team following suit on its first possession, driving effortlessly into field goal range.

Then the drive stalled.

Quarterback Tommy Mellott hobbled off the field favoring his right ankle.

The field goal attempt became an attempted fake.

The attempted fake became a pooch punt attempt.

The pooch sailed into the end zone for a touchback, netting just eight yards as North Dakota State would take over on its own 20.

“Well, the sequence of events that happened on (the fake field goal) I knew Tommy got hurt the play before,” MSU head coach Brent Vigen said. (Mellott was actually injured three plays earlier.) “I think we were sitting about fourt-hand-four. We were probably within Blake’s (Glessner) range, but it was a two-way play and it didn’t work out for us. We certainly didn’t want to kick it in the end zone, but that one didn’t work out.”

While the MSU faithful remained engaged, the play served as a portent of things to come, as the Bobcats allowed three straight long scoring drives by the Bison, then another just before the end of the first half to fall in a 28-0 hole before ultimately losing the game 38-10 in front of 18,942 spectators on a dreary Texas day.

Mellott was injured on a third and one play from the North Dakota State University 38. He would gain a first down on the play with a 2-yard run. But while doing so, Mellott’s plant foot got rolled up on by an NDSU defender as he slipped on the wet hybrid — half grass, half synthetic turf — playing surface of Toyota Field.

He would remain in the game for the next set of downs, but he didn’t attempt to run. He completed a fiveyard pass to Lance McCutcheon on first down, then Isaiah Ifanse ran for 3 yards on second down. On third and two he opted to throw a pass — perhaps eschewing an open running lane — to receiver McCutcheon in the end zone. It fell incomplete. Mellott’s limp was obvious as he left the field on fourth down and was taken to the enclosed medical tent on the MSU sideline.

Mellott emerged from the tent and attempted to make cuts on the sideline, but it was obvious that he had lost the ability to do so. Just like that, one of the biggest assets of his game was gone.

“It definitely changed us,” Vigen said. “But it’s the next-man-up mentality. It’s Tucker’s (Rovig, senior backup quarterback) first real live bullets going in this season. He’s got a lot of game experience in his past, so I thought he went out there and competed, competed real well, did everything that he could to just — I think both sides of the football we got beat today … certainly a lot of credit goes to NDSU.”

Rovig was a senior captain who quarterbacked MSU to 10 wins between 2018 and 2019, including postseason victories. But Mellott had been the proverbial “one” during Montana State’s electric run through the FCS playoffs following a shocking 29-10 loss to rival Montana in the regular season finale. The Butte native was inserted as the starting quarterback shortly after and took the Bobcats from the No. 8 seed all the way to the title game with virtual ease.

Just over three minutes into MSU’s first title appearance in 37 years, its guide star fell out of the sky — a heartbreaking sight for the MSU fans and a deflating revelation for its players. The defense, which had allowed just 17 touchdowns in 14 games (roughly 1.2 per game) this season inexplicably allowed five in just over half of the game.

The hybrid playing surface at Toyota Stadium has drawn scrutiny over the past few years. Last season the South Dakota State University quarterback was injured in similar fashion. According to a former player with experience on the field, linemen on both sides of the ball in past games were able to roll up portions of the surface and use it as a type of starting block to come out of their stances more quickly.

North Dakota State blew Montana State off the ball consistently, averaging an astounding 7.2 yards per rush on 53 carries. In the first half alone, NDSU piled up 268 yards on 25 carries, including a 76-yard touchdown by NDSU junior Kobe Johnson that put the Bison up 21-0 before the contest was even 20 minutes old.

“I really think we are one of the only teams in the country that celebrates the offensive line,” NDSU head coach Matt Entz said after the game. “Our O-linemen are cult heroes in Fargo, North Dakota. Cordell (Volson, NDSU senior offensive tackle), everyone knows who No. 67 is. Same with Cody (Mauch, senior offensive tackle).

“We celebrate those guys. We lean on those guys. I’ve said it a hundred times and I’ll keep saying it: this program is built on our O-line and good defense. And if we can do those two things, we have an opportunity to win every game we play.”

Even if Montana State stayed at full strength throughout the championship contest, the game was going to be a difficult one for the Bobcats to win. NDSU had only lost nine games in the past 11 seasons. They have a handful of former offensive linemen starting for teams in the National Football League and their last four quarterbacks have all been drafted, and two are currently starting.

The Bobcats have now lost to NDSU four straight times — all in the playoffs — and have never lost by fewer than 25 points. The 38 points scored Saturday were the lowest output by the Bison in all of those games.

On a high note, MSU has moved up the playoff ladder in each of the past three full FCS seasons. In 2018, they made the quarterfinal. In 2019, it was the semifinal. This season they made it all the way to the title game, only to fall once more to the Bison.

“Our intent was not just to get here, so it leaves a very sour taste in your mouth,” Vigen said. “It hurts a lot. Our guys put a lot into this for a long time.

“It’s an unbelievable group of young men that will do great things no matter where they head off to, and they’ll always be special to me and they’re always going to be a real special group to this program. There’s no question about it.”