FCS Championship Second-Round Game Preview: FCS Championship Second-Round Game Preview:

‘Cat Fight! Montana State Hosts New Hampshire in FCS Playoffs


FCS Championship Second-Round Game Preview:

New Hampshire @ Montana State (Montana St. leads the all-time series 1-0)

Saturday, December 3rd – 3pm, ESPN3

The forecast in Bozeman on Saturday afternoon calls for a high temperature of 26 with a slight chance of snow showers. The last time New Hampshire head coach took the field in Bozeman for an NCAA playoff game against Montana State, the weather wasn’t any warmer. On a late November afternoon in 1976, McDonnell and his New Hampshire teammates entered Reno H. Sales Stadium seeking a berth in the semi-finals of the Division II playoffs. Fighting through bitter cold temperatures that only reached a reported high of 10 degrees, McDonnell and his Wildcat teammates not only battled the host Bobcats, but also a frozen playing surface. After notching what seemed to be the game-tying touchdown with seven minutes remaining in the ballgame, New Hampshire kicker Sam Checovich’s extra point attempt sailed wide left preserving Montana State’s 17-16 lead. That would account for the final margin as the game ended when UNH quarterback Jeff Allen’s 60-yard hail mary heave fell innocently to Bozeman’s frozen tundra.

In the loss, McDonnell made six tackles and returned four punts for 12 yards. Montana State would go on to defeat North Dakota State and Akron en route to capturing their second Division-II championship. When asked this week about his feelings when the pairing was announced, McDonnell said, “I just started laughing. I’ve been there before.”

This time around, Coach McDonnell is aiming for a much different result. Essential to achieving that goal are his quarterback, CAA Offensive Player of the Year, and Payton Award Finalist Kevin Decker, middle linebacker and Buck Buchanan Award Finalist Matt Evans, and wide receiver and Jerry Rice Award Finalist R.J. Harris. McDonnell and his outstanding trio were ranked in The Sports Network/Fathead.com Top 25 each week this season, extending their CAA-best streak to 111 weeks dating back to September 13, 2004. The only team in the nation who has been in the Top 25 longer is Montana State’s in-state rival Montana, who has occupied a place in the polls for 191 consecutive weeks.

Also, with their berth in this year’s field, Coach McDonnell as now led the Wildcats to eight-straight appearances in the FCS Championship playoffs, the longest active streak in the country. In their seven previous trips to the postseason, the ‘Cats have won six times in their opening round games with five of those victories coming on the road. Their only loss in that span of opening round success was against the aforementioned Grizzlies of Montana who cruised to a 47-17 victory over UNH in the 2004 national quarterfinals.

The Matchup: #11 New Hampshire (8-3, 6-2 CAA) vs. #7 Montana State (9-2, 7-1 Big Sky)

The Setting: Bobcat Stadium (capacity 17,200) – Bozeman, MT – elevation 4,940 feet

The Skinny: The chilly winter air could explode with offensive fireworks on Saturday as the Bobcats and their balanced offensive attack square off against a high-flying New Hampshire offense that gave CAA defenses fits all season.

The Bobcats are led by two talented sophomores in quarterback DeNarius McGhee and tailback Cody Kirk, as well as All-Big Sky First Team wide receiver Elvis Akpla. McGhee is coming off of a freshman campaign where he was named the Big Sky’s Offensive MVP and he turned in a solid sophomore campaign as well, throwing for 2,360 yards and 22 touchdowns while also rushing for 244 and three scores. In his first season as a full-time starter, Kirk was the Bobcats’ bell-cow, toting the rock 211 time for 1,233 yards while finding paydirt on 14 occasions. Akpla started his career at the University of Oregon, joining the Bobcats following his redshirt freshman campaign. In his final season in Bozeman, Akpla pulled down 49 receptions for 940 yards and 11 scores; easily McGhee’s favorite target, he hauled in 22 more balls than his next closest teammate. As an offense, Montana State finished first in the Big Sky in scoring offense (34.2 ppg) while finishing second in total offense (447.4 ypg) and rushing yards (222.7 ypg).

UNH’s offensive attack is buoyed by its Payton Award Finalist and CAA Offensive Player of the Year Kevin Decker. The redshirt senior has made the most of his first full season of action, completing 70 percent of his passes for 3,072 yards and 20 touchdowns. In addition to his passing prowess, Decker is also nimble-footed, rushing 417 yards and a team-best nine scores. The Wildcat backfield is full of weapons to complement Decker, boasting three other rushers who have topped 300 yards on the ground: Dontra Peters, Nico Steriti (378 yards, 3 TDs), and Chris Setian (338 yards, 3 TDs). Leading the group is the versatile Peters who ran for 568 yards and seven scores while catching 24 passes out of the backfield. In addition to his tailback duties, Peters is also UNH’s leading returner, accumulating 764 return yards on the year. Through the air, Decker is fortunate to have two outstanding receivers in junior Joey Orlando and Jerry Rice Award Finalist R.J. Harris. Orlando has been on the receiving end of 49 passes chalking up 617 yards and three scores. Harris, the outstanding redshirt freshman from Odenton, MD, grabbed 46 balls for 658 yards and was an absolute nightmare for opposing secondaries, accounting for seven touchdown receptions.

The Key Match-up: Although their offense is one of the best in the Big Sky, Montana State’s defense may be their strongest unit. Their performance against New Hampshire’s prolific offensive attack will be the most important match-up on Saturday afternoon.

The ‘Cats boast one of the CAA’s most potent offensive attacks, ranking third in scoring (33.5 pts/gm), first in passing (281.5 ypg), and first in total offense (444.1 ypg). What may be most dangerous about the UNH attack is their ability to spread the field and open up running lanes with the threat of their passing game. With Decker’s ability to run the football along with the three-headed backfield of Peters, Steriti, and Setian, the Wildcats have a bevy of offensive weapons.

Entering the final week of the regular season, Montana State was undefeated in FCS play and was ranked No. 1 in The Sports Network Top. As good as the Bobcats’ offense is, the backbone of their success is their ferocious defense. Led by All-Big Sky First Team defensive tackle Zach Minter, Montana State finished the year leading the Big Sky in total defense (321.5 ypg), pass defense (189.5 ypg) and sacks (38), while ranking second in scoring defense (22.2 pts/gm) and rushing defense (132 ypg). The success of the Bobcats defense starts with their front four who wreak havoc in opposing backfields. Minter registered seven quarterback sacks, while defensive end Brad Daly corralled the quarterback 10 times to lead the Bobcats.

Inherent in UNH’s offensive success is establishing a good offensive rhythm. In one of their only defeats this year against William & Mary, UNH was disrupted by the Tribe’s ability to get consistent pressure on Decker from the front four. Montana State’s defensive front is as good as anybody in the country and will look to be a constant presence in the Wildcats’ backfield.

The Wild Cards: New Hampshire’s offense is a fast-paced scoring machine. Their ability to get up and down the field in quick spurts has been fantastic for the scoreboard, but tough on the legs of their defense. UNH ranks near the bottom of the CAA in time of possession, averaging just under 22 minutes per game, leaving their defense on the field for extended stretches. This had led to a tough year on the defensive side of the football for the Wildcats. Even though they are anchored by the CAA’s leading tackler and a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award in Matt Evans, UNH ranks last in the CAA in every major defensive category: scoring defense (32.1 ppg), total defense (430.9 ypg), rushing defense (177 ypg), and passing defense (253.9 ypg).
Montana State’s offense has the ability to hurt you through the air and on the ground, but the engine of their success is the running game. On the year, the Bobcats have attempted almost 200 more running plays than pass plays – 477 rushing attempts vs. 283 passing attempts. They want to pound you up front with All-Big Sky First Team linemen Conrad Burbank and Alex Terrien, run the football to set up the pass, convert third downs (they do so at a 44.7% clip), and own the time of possession.

The key to UNH leaving Bozeman with a victory will be their ability to stop the Bobcats’ running game. In their only FCS loss of the season against Montana, the Grizzlies held Montana State to only 79 total rushing yards, while holding Cody Kirk to a season-low 45 yards on only 11 carries. Montana’s ability to stop the run kept the Bobcats off of the scoreboard in the first half for the first time all season. UNH’s defense will need to follow the same gameplan and force Montana State to try and keep pace with them through the air, using their offense as their best defense.

The Projection: Montana State is built for the postseason. They run the football very well and they play smothering defense. That being said, Kevin Decker is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and his ability to use his feet allows him to buy time in the pocket and create plays downfield to Joey Orlando and R.J. Harris. Winning in December in January depends on the play of the big uglies up front. In this match-up it seems like Conrad Burbank and Alex Terrien on the offensive side and Zach Minter and Brad Daly on the defensive side may be too much for UNH to handle. It will be a fantastic ballgame, but in Bozeman, the Bobcats come away with a win.

Final Score: Montana St. 31- UNH 27