FRISCO, Texas — The North Dakota State football team was playing its 25th game in less than 11 months, facing a team in its 15th game over the same period. Yet Montana State was no healthier and looked no fresher than NDSU in their Football Championship Subdivision title tilt.

MSU beat top-seeded Sam Houston 42-19 in the FCS quarterfinals, and Bearkats coach KC Keeler attributed the blowout partially to his team’s 22-games-in-10-months schedule. MSU’s semifinal opponent, South Dakota State, didn’t use its 25-games-in-10-months grind as an excuse for its 31-17 loss, but it was hard to watch the undermanned Cats handle SDSU in the second half and conclude that the 10-game difference didn’t contribute.

Saturday’s 38-10 win over the Bobcats gave NDSU its ninth national title since 2011, but the Bison weren’t unbeatable over the previous 11 months. Sam Houston defeated them 24-20 in the quarterfinals of the FCS’ pandemic-postponed spring season en route to the championship. SDSU handed NDSU its only loss of this season. Both the Bearkats and the Jackrabbits returned many key players from the spring and were mostly healthy against MSU.

The Bison were able to puncture the transitive property and handle the Cats, a talented team that skipped the spring season, for many reasons, including game plan and matchup advantages. NDSU also prevailed because it has spent more than a decade preparing for 15-game seasons, which MSU is still growing accustomed to.

“We have great coaches that develop young players and create a lot of depth,” NDSU linebacker Jackson Hankey said after Saturday’s game. “If you look at our D-line, they play eight or nine guys, and it doesn't seem to be a drop-off.”

The Bobcats' 2021 season finished 12-3 overall with a trip to the FCS championship.

The Cats also prided themselves on defensive line depth this season, often using more than nine players on the front four every game. That allowed MSU to have success defending the run against Sam Houston and SDSU despite missing All-American nose tackle Chase Benson. Byron Rollins, Blake Schmidt and others clogged gaps well in Benson’s absence, exemplifying their team’s “next man up” mantra.

Season-opening starting D-tackle Kyle Rygg suffered a season-ending injury in the first game. Sebastian Valdez started at that spot the last eight games and played well, as has backup Blake Hehl.

That diverse group of interior linemen benefited from All-American Daniel Hardy and Big Sky honorable mention Amandre Williams at D-end, and there was little drop-off when backups such as Brody Grebe and Ben Seymour came in.

Benson suited up but barely played on Saturday. It’s impossible to know how the game would’ve gone if the Helena native was at full strength, but outgoing MSU defensive coordinator Freddie Banks wasn’t being hyperbolic when he said teams “can’t run it up the middle” when Benson lines up.

“Chase has another level” that his replacements can’t quite reach, Vigen said in November.

NDSU has a beefy, technically sound offensive line led by Nash Jensen, Jake Kubas, Cody Mauch, Jalen Sundell and Cordell Volson. The Bison ran for 380 yards on 53 carries Saturday, largely on power runs up the middle. They won the interior battle and blocked Hardy and Williams well. All-American Troy Andersen, arguably the best defensive player in the country, and fellow All-Big Sky linebacker Callahan O’Reilly had an uncharacteristic number of unproductive plays. That running success opened up NDSU’s passing game.

“O-linemen are cult heroes in Fargo, North Dakota. Cordell, everyone knows who 67 is,” NDSU head coach Matt Entz said Saturday. "We celebrate those guys. We lean on those guys.”

MSU’s biggest example of “next man up” has been at quarterback. Tommy Mellott went from fourth-string special teamer to superstar in three electric playoff games. The freshman sprinkled more of his Butte magic on the first drive of Saturday’s game, but he watched Tucker Rovig take the rest of MSU’s QB snaps because of an ankle injury.

“It definitely changed us. But it's the next man up mentality,” Vigen said. “That’s Tucker's 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.”

Rovig, who started the final 12 games of the 2019 season, completed 13 of 28 passes for 156 yards, a TD and an interception against NDSU. Many of his throws, even some incompletions, were excellent. Vigen called Rovig a “tremendous leader” last month because he’s remained positive and supportive despite being leapfrogged by both Mellott and Matthew McKay as MSU’s starting QB in 2021.

Like Mellott, Simeon Woodard went from reserve to starter as a freshman and became one of MSU’s most important players. Woodard shined at cornerback in place of James Campbell, Tyrel Thomas and Eric Zambrano, who all battled injuries throughout the season.

“I can't tell you how big his play has been. He's been our constant at corner,” Vigen said last month. “To say he's been a godsend, he has been. He's had a heck of a year.”

The next men up keyed MSU’s run to the title game, but they weren’t nearly enough to win their first national title since 1984.

FCS National Championship

Montana State's Callahan O'Reilly (47), Troy Andersen (15), David Alston (91), Ty Okada (7) and Sebastian Valdez (95) prepare for a play against North Dakota State during the FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday.

On Dec. 30, Entz said his team lost some key players to injuries and “backed way off on practice” during the spring to prepare for a longer fall season.

“The one benefit, if there is a benefit, from playing in the spring was the amount of reps some of our backups got,” Entz said. “A lot of guys had a lot of time to develop.”

The Cats had one of their best seasons ever. But as so many FCS teams have learned, the Bison have set an unprecedented benchmark due to their near-perfect balance of talent, coaching, culture and depth.

Vigen played and coached at NDSU. He knows “the road map” to championship glory, as he put when he was introduced as MSU’s head coach 11 months ago.

NDSU has ended MSU’s last three seasons, by margins of 42 points in 2018 and 28 in their previous two meetings. The Cats might have to traverse a long road to close that gap.

“I truly believe that we continue to close it, but they're not slowing down, either,” Vigen said Saturday. “We've got to keep pushing the envelope. That's what North Dakota State has continued to do in every facet of that program.”

Email Victor Flores at victor.flores@406mtsports.com and follow him on Twitter at @VictorFlores406

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