Montana State and Sam Houston State meet in a rematch of an FCS Playoffs quarterfinal match-up from 2011, tonight in Bozeman, Mont. Last season’s game included MSU wide receiver Elvis Akpla making arguably the best catch of the year at any level.
Otherwise, the Bobcats had little to celebrate on their trip to Huntsville, Texas. The Bearkats dismantled Montana State, 49-13, on their march to the FCS championship game.
Tonight’s quarterfinal showdown at 8 ET on ESPN2 has a much different feel. Gone is the sunshine warming Bowers Stadium, replaced with a blanket of snow covering Bobcat Stadium. It’s a much different atmosphere this time around. Chalk up a decided home field advantage for the Bobcats.
With temperatures in the teens at kickoff and two of the best defensive teams lined up two of the most potent offenses, the makings of a postseason classic exist.
“Coming into this week, we knew it was going to be in Montana, obviously, and it was going to be cold. When we got off the plane, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Sam Houston State quarterback Brian Bell told The Huntsville Item. “I think the weather’s probably going to get a little worse or cold, I guess you’d say. Right now, it’s really not that bad.
Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz hired offensive coordinator Doug Ruse away from Western Illinois to replace Bob DeBesse. DeBesse joined Bob Davie at New Mexico, implementing a similar variation on the option-based offense he used at SHSU. It helped the Lobos win four games — a borderline miraculous accomplishment given how awful UNM has been in recent years — and it made SHSU one of the most prolific scoring teams in the FCS.
Ruse employed a similar look while helping WIU to the 2010 FCS Playoffs. That season, quarterback Matt Barr stuffed stat sheets at a staggering pace with over 3400 yards passing and another 449 on the ground. Bearkat quarterback Bell isn’t producing quite the same numbers, but he is used as a two-way threat.
Bell has thrown for 2121 yards and 20 touchdowns, with another 262 and four touchdowns rushing out of the Pistol. His style has somewhat mirrored that of Montana State’s Denarius McGhee, who has 2934 yards and 24 passing touchdowns to go with 328 and four on the ground.
While capable ball carriers, neither is overexerted in the run game. That’s because both offenses have a group of capable options out of the backfield.
Tim Flanders has had an outstanding season for SHSU, averaging better than six yards per carry en route to 1252 on the year. Richard Sincere is going for the same average when he gets the ball, and Keyshawn Hill adds another dimension at over eight yards per attempt.
Montana State’s rushing attack is less explosive, but Cody Kirk and Orenzo Davis split opportunities effectively to the tune of 1426 total yards. The snow is much less likely to affect Montana State’s game plan — this isn’t exactly new for the area. One of the best FCS Playoffs games in recent years pit Appalachian State against Montana in a snow storm in 2009, for example.
McGhee passes well over 30 times a game, and the frigid temperatures and snow are unlikely to affect that. SHSU is more heavily reliant on the rush; a sound strategy in adverse weather conditions, but a challenge given the opponent.
Both defenses rank in the top 20 nationally for points allowed, and each is particularly stout against the rush. SHSU is allowing just 88 rushing yards a game; Montana State is giving up just 98.
MSU defensive ends Caleb Schreibeis and Brad Daly wreak havoc in opposing backfields. Their ability to get to Flanders and Sincere before big gains develop should set the tone for the Bobcat defense. Similarly, Darius Taylor and Jesse Beauchamp applying pressure to McGhee is critical for the Bearkats, and the necessary starting point for SHSU’s 14 interceptions.
Bookie Snead and Dax Swanson have combined for seven of SHSU’s interceptions. Winning the turnover battle is of paramount importance in conditions like tonight’s.