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FCS title pits a first-year coach against his powerhouse alma mater

Brent Vigen played at North Dakota State & helped the Bison to a trio of titles. Now he seeks to end Montana State's drought in his first year

Consider it the upstart and the staple.

Today, in Frisco, Texas, Montana State and first-year head coach Brent Vigen make their first Football Championship Subdivision title-game game appearance since 1984 – the year of the program’s only FCS title.

Across the field, nonetheless, rests a familiar program – both for Vigen and the FCS championship.

No. 2 seed North Dakota State (13-1), which is seeking its ninth national title in 11 years, also is Vigen’s alma mater.

A Buxton, North Dakota, native, Vigen -- hired atop the Montana State program exactly 11 months ago -- was part of the Bison rise as their offensive coordinator for a trio of national titles from 2011-13.

Now, Vigen explains, his responsibilities entail more – especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic pushing into its third year – when the teams meet at noon (ESPN2).

“Well, you're pulling different strings, I know that,” Vigen said of his charge atop the playoffs’ No. 8 seed. “This trip down in particular with the uptick of COVID, that's probably worried me as much as anything. Just wanting to get to the game and doing everything we could. Worrying about stuff like that more than what plays are going to be called.

“I think a lot about how you do things down here is how you plan for it, and I had obviously an experience and a real good roadmap on how to spend our time down here, and I think our players and our coaches have followed that. …

“I don't know, it's still about going out and coaching that game (today), and I'm really looking forward to that. I'm sure the emotions and everything will be a little bit different from that perspective. I haven't been on the field here in my three trips before, so looking forward to it.”

For North Dakota State, Matt Entz – who arrived as the program’s defensive coordinator in 2014 the year after Vigen departed for the offensive coordinator position at Wyoming, where he worked with eventual NFL Draft first-round pick Josh Allen – it’s an opportunity to both reclaim and sustain the Bison program’s overall dominance.

Entz led NDSU to the 2019 crown in his first season as head coach, saw his team fall to eventual national champion Sam Houston State during the 2020 season that was shifted to spring 2020 and now can reassert NDSU to an unprecedented ninth championship in nine FCS title-game appearances.

In keeping with past tradition, Entz invited numerous former Bison players to the team’s Friday afternoon practice to instill in this squad the platform of North Dakota State football and the heritage therein.

“It's become a tradition, something that I know our alum really look forward to because we have the opportunity for a couple of them to address our team,” Entz said. “But a couple of our current seniors will address the alum, too.

“I go back to 2019, Terry Hanson spoke, became emotional, and a guy like Dom Jones who's from Atlanta, Georgia, walked up to me afterwards and goes, ‘Coach, I get it; I see why this place is different.’

“So it's experiences, it's the messages that these guys have who some of them played back in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, to our recent players will be there. I think it says a lot about Bison Nation and reenergizes the Bison pride that our kids feel.”

On the field, the matchup pits strength against strength. NDSU is the nation’s stingiest scoring defense at the FCS level; it allows just 11.21 points per game. No. 2? Indeed, the Bison allow just 13.4 points per game.

Offensively, NDSU averages almost 34 ppg – 14th nationally – while the Bobcats score 30 ppg.

That the Bison are playing for the title in their 23rd game since Feb. 21, 2021, is testament to the program’s consistency and depth.

“I want to say on January 4th we officially have been practicing football for a year,” Entz said. “You can say what you want about the summer months, but you guys have been around our program enough to know that our summer is pretty highly organized, a lot of energy, a lot of development goes into it. Very little amount of time off for our players.

“We made some adjustments in the spring to try to make sure that we're going to protect the fall. I wouldn't change any of the things that we did or how it worked out. I think this was for the betterment of the program the way we did it. It's going to give us legs moving forward, as well.

“But kudos to our staff, our medical personnel, and especially to our players for handling this. When you have to test -- we had our last test Wednesday before practice in Fargo, and if you're a senior and you still had to test, you're putting everything -- your career is coming down to a test if you get to go or not. It created some stressful situations. It created some probably heated situations within our program. Again, our players handled it very maturely and professionally along the way.”

Now, the way is set and kickoff is mere hours away.

Vigen knows he’s in the lead chair to represent both the entire Montana State institution and the program’s rabid fan base.

The Bobcats' program has national titles at the NAIA, NCAA Division II and FCS levels -- though none since 1984.

“I'm sure there's thousands and thousands of you down, Montanans, Bobcat fans down here in Frisco,” Vigen said, “but for the tens of thousands that are back in the great state of Montana and across this country, this team is playing for you. We're looking forward to just putting our best effort. …

“We’ll give it everything we can.”