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Rushing attack rages for Montana State, goes quiet for SDSU in FCS semifinal

Ground struggles frustrate for South Dakota State in semifinal showdown

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Photos from the FCS playoffs semifinal game between South Dakota State and Montana State played Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021 at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, Montana. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)
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BOZEMAN, Mont. -- Montana State coach Brent Vigen called the two teams to be mirror images of each other.

But when South Dakota State looks in the mirror at Saturday’s FCS semifinal game, they won’t like seeing the struggles to run the ball when it counted in the second half and Montana State’s ability to seemingly run at will in a 31-17 FCS semifinal victory at Bobcat Stadium.

Montana State only outgained SDSU on the ground, 176-124, but how they did it -- with a sledgehammer approach of freshman phenom Tommy Mellott -- was demoralizing to a Jackrabbit team that has made its bones in 2021 with two great running backs.

“They stopped the run. We couldn’t stop their quarterback until late,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said.

SDSU finished with 124 yards on 33 carries, well below the team’s season average of 218 yards per game. It was the fourth time this year that SDSU was held below 150 team rushing yards in a game and the Jackrabbits were 1-3 in those games (defeated North Dakota, lost to Northern Iowa and South Dakota).

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South Dakota State's Pierre Strong Jr. breaks free for a touchdown run during the FCS semifinals Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021 at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, Montana. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

The Bobcats seemed to get better at slowing SDSU’s two dynamite running backs Isaiah Davis and Pierre Strong Jr. as the game wore on. Strong had six carries for 71 yards in the first quarter, bolstered by an impressive 44-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter that tied the game at 7.

But from then on, it was ugly for the Jackrabbits on the ground. Strong had six carries for 15 yards in the second half. Davis did not have a rush for more than eight yards on the day and had five carries for two yards in the second half.

Entering Saturday, the two players had combined for 30 plays of 20 yards or more. SDSU got its first of the day when Strong connected on a 44-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter, shedding a tackle and going off to the races.

And for the rest of the day, SDSU’s run game was mostly quiet. Montana State frequently won the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in the second half and the inability to run the ball in the second half forced SDSU into challenging third down situations.

SDSU had eight third-down situations in the final two quarters and only two were shorter than four yards. (The Jacks didn’t convert either.)

Four of those third downs were 10 yards or more, forcing SDSU to the air. Chris Oladokun threw the ball 35 times, the second-most for the SDSU quarterback on the season. In the four games where he’s thrown 30 or more times, the Jacks were 0-4 (Southern Illinois, UNI and USD were the others.)

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Meanwhile, on the other sideline, the Bobcats enjoyed the benefits of a quarterback their foes in the FCS playoffs haven’t been able to solve, making just his third career start. Vigen said the plan was 25 to 30 carries for the quarterback but they rode the hot hand further.

Mellott had 155 yards on 34 carries and two touchdowns, and did not do any bragging in the postgame press conference. Instead, he left that for Montana State’s best ex-quarterback on the roster.

“For a freshman to go out in a semifinal game to ball like that, … it was awesome. When the offense is playing like that, it makes it pretty easy to play defense,” said Montana State linebacker Troy Anderson, himself a converted quarterback.

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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