Teams that kicked off season with upset wins to battle
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) Two teams that opened their 2015 seasons with impressive upset victories are set to battle in Missoula, Montana, on Saturday in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Montana's season started with a bang. The Grizzlies took down four-time defending champion North Dakota State, but much of the season has been hampered by injuries, especially at the quarterback position, said coach Bob Stitt.
Montana (7-4, 6-2 Big Sky) found a way to keep pace through the middle of the schedule with the backup and third-string quarterbacks, then finally returned starter Brady Gustafson to finish out with wins against Idaho State, Eastern Washington and Montana State.
''We feel really good about where we're at, how we're playing, the health of our team,'' Stitt said. ''We feel very fortunate to be in the playoffs. It does feel like we belong.''
South Dakota State (8-3, 5-3 Missouri Valley Football Conference) opened the season by beating Kansas for its first ever win over an FBS squad. The Jackrabbits appeared on pace for a first-round bye heading into the regular season finale at Western Illinois but dropped a heartbreaker in double overtime.
Jackrabbits coach John Stiegelmeier said players quickly got over their disappointment and are ready for the challenge of taking the field in one of college football's loudest environments.
''We're excited to be in it and we're excited to have a game in Montana,'' he said. ''We expect to play our best football of the year.''
Key for South Dakota State will be getting the ball into the hands of wide receiver Jake Wieneke, a sophomore from Maple Grove, Minnesota, who has caught 66 balls for 1,344 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
Stiegelmeier said Montana plays a ton of man-on-man schemes, and Wieneke always steps up in big games.
''If they go 1-on-1 coverage, he's got to have a good game,'' Stiegelmeier said.
Stitt said the Grizzlies will have to find a way to contain Wieneke, but Stitt has a lot of confidence in the way his corners are playing.
''We put them on an island every week and they're coming up big,'' he said.
Gustafson has put up solid numbers since returning from a lower leg injury suffered in the Grizzlies' Sept. 19 game at Liberty. He's thrown 120-205 for 1,460 yards in 2015 with 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions
But the Grizzlies will be facing a tough, experienced defense that has allowed just 16.7 points per game and really doesn't show any weakness, Stitt said.
''You don't look at their defense and go, `Wow, we've got to stop this guy or that guy,''' he said. ''They've got very good players in every position and are solid - all 11 of them. ''
The Jackrabbits on offense have an efficient quarterback, a solid offensive line and a tough running back, Stitt said.
But the O-line will have to contend with Grizzlies defensive end Tyrone Holmes, a senior from Eagle Point, Oregon, who leads the FCS with 14 sacks.
''He's a great player,'' Stiegelmeier said. ''So tackles get ready, backs get ready, tight ends get ready. Know that you're facing one of best of the nation.''
Saturday marks the eighth meeting of the two teams. Montana has won all seven games, including a 61-48 win over South Dakota State in the first round of the 2009 FCS playoffs.
The winner will face North Dakota State next Saturday in Fargo.
Follow Dirk Lammers on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ddlammers