LLike many new head coaches, Brent Vigen proclaimed his intention to lead Montana state to a national championship during his introductory press conference in February. But it wasn’t a hollow attempt to appease fans.
Vigen knew he had a talented squad capable of making a deep playoff run, as the Bobcats proved this month. They are less than two weeks away from facing North Dakota State in the FCS title game in Frisco, TX.
But MSU (12-2) was unable to make its first league appearance since 1984 solely because of talent and fortune. Vigen and his staff have been preparing their squad for this moment since February.
“You have to have a team ready for the job, ready for the long haul,” Vigen said on February 16. “You start to think about playing 15, 16 games, that’s the vision you have to have. You’re not trying to prepare for the 12th, the 13th.
During this press conference, Vigen said training will be a crucial part of MSU’s 15-game goals. The Bobcats skipped the postponed pandemic 2021 spring season, so they had time to focus on weightlifting, conditioning and other ways to prepare for a long fall.
MSU started a spring training routine that involved more reps than many teams typically perform. Instead of 22 players on the field in 11-on-11 drills, the Bobcats had 44: one offensive unit against one defensive unit at either end of the Bobcat Stadium field.
This is something Vigen picked up during his time at NDSU, where he played and coached from 1993 to 2013. He was offensive coordinator for the past five years and helped the Bison win their first three of eight titles. FCS. He was Wyoming’s offensive coordinator from 2014-2020.
“They’ve been doing it since 2010, so it’s not like we have the advantage there,” he said with a smile last week. “But I think it allowed the guys to learn on the pitch, to learn by doing.”
The Bobcats “made it up over the summer,” Vigen added, giving strength and conditioning coach Sean Herrin a better idea of how he should coach players. Vigen wanted them to get used to practicing this way when fall camp started in August.
“Our guys worked really hard this summer. I think there was real determination, ”said Vigen. “With the direction of Coach Herrin, it was a real commitment from our guys. Then at fall camp I think you’re lucky to have guys as seasoned as you can get.
One of the best examples of MSU fall camp preparation is Rylan Ortt. The Missoula red-shirted freshman replaced Ty Okada, the nickel fullback of the All-Big Sky second team, in the first half of MSU’s 42-19 quarter-final victory over Sam Houston on the December 11.
Ortt also started nickel in the 31-17 semifinal victory over South Dakota State a week later. Any descent from Okada to Ortt was small.
The Bobcats also missed third-team All-American nose tackle Chase Benson against SDSU. The Jackrabbits had a good rush in the first half, but were limited to under-2 rushing yards in the second half. In addition to the tweaks, MSU’s backups performed well.
The Bobcats have used a strong rotation of D linemen throughout every game this season. D linemen like Brody Grebe, Byron Rollins and Ben Seymour are no reinforcements in the eyes of Hardy, an All-American defensive end, and Amandre Williams, a defensive end honorably mentioned by Big Sky.
“We all feel like everyone in the room is a starter,” Williams said after the SDSU game. “Anytime, anyone in the room can do plays, and they stepped up and did it.”
The star of this game and all of the playoffs was Tommy Mellott. The Butte freshman was a fourth-string quarterback in the spring and fall it seems unlikely there will be much playing time beyond the special teams. But Mellott had more opportunities to improve his QB skills thanks in large part to those 44-player training sessions.
“He wasn’t just waiting for a few reps here and there,” Vigen said.
MSU certainly didn’t expect Benson, Okada and All-American running back Isaiah Ifanse to miss the semi-final game. The Bobcats didn’t want regular season starting quarterback Matthew McKay to struggle in the second half. TJ Session started the first 10 straight tackle games for good reason.
But saves like Ortt, Mellott and Rush Reimer (Session’s replacement) just didn’t perform well enough to compete with SDSU, Sam Houston and UT Martin. They won each of those playoff games by at least two scores.
“It’s just a change in the way of doing things and our guys really believe in it collectively that helped us get there,” said Vigen.