FRISCO, Texas (AP) — North Dakota State began practice more than a year ago for an unprecedented spring season that ended without a championship. Things felt much more normal for the Bison this time.
Hunter Luepke ran for three touchdowns in the first half, plowing over a defender going into the end zone on the first one, and North Dakota State won its ninth FCS national title in 11 seasons with a 38-10 win over Montana State on Saturday.
“Everything went our way,” Luepke said. “Everything we drew up happened.”
The Bison (14-1), who also got a 76-yard TD run from Kobe Johnson, have never lost when making the trip from Fargo to Frisco for the final Football Championship Subdivision game. They are 9-0 since the 2011 season at the MLS soccer stadium north of downtown Dallas.
The Bobcats (12-3) struggled after losing standout freshman quarterback Tommy Mellott to an ankle injury on the game’s opening drive.
“It definitely changed us,” said first-year Bobcats coach Brent Vigen, a former NDSU player and longtime assistant coach.
Luepke, a 236-pound junior fullback who finished with 82 yards rushing, took a direct snap for a 6-yard TD just before halftime that put NDSU up 28-0. He also had an 11-yard TD after that powerful 8-yard scoring run on the first Bison drive.
"It’s a tone setter,” Bison coach Matt Entz said. “I know it’s an intangible and you can’t measure it, but we want to lead the country in physicality. And when you have a back like that, it sure helps.”
This championship game came less than eight months after Sam Houston State, after a playoff win over NDSU, beat South Dakota State for the title last May in a season pushed back to the spring because of the pandemic.
Montana State was in its first title game since 1984, when they won the championship then referred to as NCAA Division I-AA. The eighth-seeded Bobcats won each of their first three playoff games by at least two touchdowns after Mellott took over as the starter, including victories over Sam Houston and South Dakota State.
The Bobcats have lost to North Dakota State in the playoffs in each of the school's last three seasons. Montana State lost in earlier rounds in the 2018 and 2019 seasons before opting out of last year's spring schedule.
North Dakota State led 35-0 before Blake Glessner’s 26-yard field goal midway through the third quarter.
“They were able to play their brand of football, grabbed the momentum really quick," Vigen said. "And we were never able to get to get it back.”
The Bison piled up 380 yards rushing and 506 total yards, the most allowed by the Bobcats this season. Montana State had given up only 13.4 points and 107.9 yards rushing per game.
Mellott accounted for 11 touchdowns in the first three playoff games, but got hurt when his right foot twisted awkwardly when he was tackled on a 2-yard run to convert third-and-1. He remained on the field the final three plays of that series, but was clearly in pain while hopping on his left foot after throwing a pass. He never returned despite extended efforts with trainers to get back in the game.
Tucker Rovig completed 13 of 28 passes for 156 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He also ran eight times for 51 yards after replacing Mellott.
The Bison effectively used two quarterbacks. Starter Cam Miller completed nine of 13 passes for 126 yards with a 35-yard TD to tight end Josh Babicz, and Quincy Patterson ran 11 times for 98 yards.
Montana State: The Bobcats just weren't the same without Mellott. Rovig started the final 12 games of the 2019 season, including three playoff games, but had attempted only five passes and run five times this season before the title game. North Carolina State transfer Matthew McKay, who started every game in the regular season, went back into the transfer portal after Mellott was named the starter before the playoffs.
North Dakota State: Entz is the third NDSU coach with multiple championships in their title run. His head coaching debut was in 2019 with a 16-0 record. Craig Bohl led the Bison to three titles from 2011-13 before Chris Klieman won four championships in five seasons. ... The Bison, who are 41-3 in FCS playoff games, didn't make it to the championship game in the pandemic-altered season last spring after title-winning quarterback Trey Lance opted out to prepare for the NFL draft, when he was the third overall pick by San Francisco.
Montana State: Mellott will go into his sophomore season as the full-time starter, with the opener at home Sept. 3 against McNeese State.
North Dakota State: In the FargoDome for its 2022 season opener Sept. 3 vs. Drake.