December 04, 2015

The euphoria that swept through Missoula a little over three months ago faded quickly.

Montana's thrilling 38-35 home victory over four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State on Aug. 29 courtesy of Joey Counts' 1-yard touchdown run with two seconds remaining was followed by a loss the following week to a Cal Poly team that wound up finishing below .500.

Shortly thereafter, Grizzlies starting quarterback Brady Gustafson, who threw for 434 yards and three touchdowns against NDSU, injured his leg in a loss to Liberty and missed the next six games.

So pardon coach Bob Stitt for not putting much stock into the season-opening victory over the third-seeded Bison heading into Saturday's rematch in the second round of the FCS playoffs at the Fargodome. Plenty has changed on both sides.

"It gave us a lot of confidence, but we've been through so many ups and downs throughout the season that the North Dakota State game seems like two years ago," Stitt said. "It was great at the time, but we came back and lost a difficult game the next week. It really means nothing now."

He won't get an argument from Bison coach Chris Klieman. Senior Carson Wentz entered the season considered to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and he lived up to that billing by throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for two more against the Grizzlies (8-4).

Klieman, though, was forced to turn to redshirt freshman Easton Stick for the rest of the season after Wentz broke his wrist in a loss to South Dakota on Oct. 17.

Stick has been more than serviceable, throwing for 11 touchdowns and adding four running while winning all five of his starts as NDSU finished 9-2 and claimed a share of the Missouri Valley Conference title.

"We can't get caught up in all the things that happened in August," Klieman said. "December's a different time. If you're playing football in December and you're an FCS program, you're doing some really good things."

Montana comes in having won four in a row, the last three with Gustafson under center. He's thrown for seven touchdowns since returning, including two in a 24-17 first-round win over South Dakota State last week.

"They're a real hot football team right now because he's back," Klieman said. "They're kind of clicking on all cylinders."

Containing defensive end Tyrone Holmes will be quite a challenge for North Dakota State's line. Holmes is one of three finalists for the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year award next month after having 17 1/2 tackles for loss and leading the FCS in the regular season with 14 sacks. He added three sacks last week against South Dakota State.

The Bison have their own standout in cornerback C.J. Smith, who wasn't on the field in the opener to make life tougher for Gustafson because he was still recovering from a knee injury. Smith is expected to play in this matchup despite sitting out the regular-season finale against Missouri State.

"It's going to be really important for C.J. to play and be effective," Klieman said. "We're hoping he's going to be able to play and that's the plan, but we have four or five practices (before the game) and we have to see how he reacts to running around out there."

Quite possibly the biggest difference in the rematch is the venue. The Grizzlies had a packed house when they hosted the Bison and are expecting the same raucous crowd inside the dome.

North Dakota State has won 28 of its last 29 at home, including a 26-game streak that was the nation's longest before the loss to South Dakota. The Grizzlies went 3-2 on the road this season.

"It's exciting to go out there and play in a great environment," Stitt said. "They've got a great fan base, and it's going to be a lot of fun for our players. We just have to go play hard, and play our brand of football and see how the chips fall."

The winner plays either No. 5 seed Portland State or Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals.

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