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McFeely: Blowout win changes North Dakota State's playoff narrative

FARGO -- Well, the first game in the FCS Playoff Bracket of Death wasn't so difficult. Don't stick a fork in the dynasty just yet.North Dakota State, behind a ferocious defense reminiscent of the undefeated 2013 team, used Montana as a punching b...

FARGO -- Well, the first game in the FCS Playoff Bracket of Death wasn’t so difficult. Don’t stick a fork in the dynasty just yet.
North Dakota State, behind a ferocious defense reminiscent of the undefeated 2013 team, used Montana as a punching bag Saturday before a particularly juiced-up crowd - take that as you wish - at the Fargodome. It was 37-6 in favor of the Bison and it just as easily could’ve been 45-6 or 52-6. It was that one-sided.
“Those guys weren’t losing in the Fargodome today,” Bison coach Chris Klieman said.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Bison fans were screaming conspiracy theories about the NCAA after the playoff matchups came out a couple of weeks ago. The road to Frisco, Texas, and another championship game was going to be particularly bloody because so many powerful Missouri Valley Football Conference teams and the Grizzlies were potential NDSU opponents.
“The NCAA is trying to make sure the Bison don’t win another national championship!” rang the chorus.
“You’re forgetting we’re still pretty good!” the Bison answered against the Griz.
Ah yes, Montana. This was going to be especially dicey for NDSU because the Big Sky Conference team beat four-time defending champ NDSU 38-35 in Missoula in August. It was Montana’s Super Bowl and Stitt acted as much after that contest by declaring his program all the way back.
What transpired at the dome looked more like Robert Morris or New Hampshire or Furman came to town again.
“You don’t win national championships in August,” Klieman said after Saturday’s game. “You win the suckers in December.”
The lopsided score may have come as a surprise to many, and probably did to Stitt. The confident coach made some curious comments earlier in the week when asked whether the Bison had an advantage over the Griz because of all the NDSU playoff experience the last several years. Stitt used the opportunity to question whether Bison redshirt freshman quarterback Easton Stick, replacing the injured Carson Wentz since October, had the necessary playoff moxie.
“Their program has an advantage, but their quarterback has no advantage,” Stitt said on Tuesday. “It’s just through my experience your team goes as your quarterback goes. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles his first playoff game.”
Stick proceeded to sprint for a 49-yard touchdown on the Bison’s first possession, with nary a Montana defender laying a hand on him. The youngster did not necessarily impress with his arm, the way the future NFLer Wentz did in Missoula, but Stick continues to be the coolest thing this side of a cucumber.
Interestingly, the same cannot be said of Stitt’s quarterback. Poor Brady Gustafson looked nothing like the confident gunslinger we saw in Missoula. Instead, Gustafson threw four interceptions and just about threw four more. Two of the picks were returned for touchdowns, one each by Jalen Allison and C.J. Smith.
This can be attributed to the beating Gustafson took by the Bison defense. He’d get knocked on his keister by, say, defensive lineman Brian Schaetz and drag himself off the carpet only to get drilled on the next play by Greg Menard. It was a remarkably violent version of “Groundhog Day.”
We were reminded of Fargodome Playoff Rule No. 1: When teams come to Fargo for a playoff game for the first time, the quarterback is often the sacrificial lamb. If the Griz happen to get back to Fargo next year, Gustafson might be OK. But this time, he could probably use a couple of bags of ice.
Suddenly, if it’s possible a four-time champion can spring a surprise, the Bison appear to be right in the mix again. The FCS Bracket of Death? It’s not going to be easy, and those who pre-booked flights and hotel rooms in Frisco can’t quite rest easy yet, but the first one wasn’t quite as gauntlet-worthy as expected.
The formula still works. NDSU’s defense hammers the opposition into tapping out, the offense grounds it and pounds it, and a sold-out crowd screams itself sober for three hours.
“They do what they do,” said Montana defensive end Tyrone Holmes. “It’s been a recipe for success here for a long time. They aren’t going to change.”
The pre-game video showed these words on the four big-screens in each corner of the stadium: “The road to Frisco ... still goes through Fargo.”
If the talented Illinois State Redbirds win again next Saturday, that’s not true. The road will travel through Normal, Ill.
But if the Bison continue to play the way they did against Montana, it will go through NDSU.
This dynasty isn’t going to end without a fight apparently, Bracket of Death or not.

Related Topics: COLLEGE FOOTBALL
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