Carson Wentz

NDSU quarterback Carson Wentz leads the four-time defending national champion Bison.

RICK YEATTS/Southland Conference

As Brock Jensen hoisted the FCS national championship trophy among a herd of his Bison teammates, Carson Wentz looked on from the back of the fray.

Sure Wentz had played a role in the 2013 title, North Dakota State's third in a row, but the quarterback with a single touchdown pass in mop-up duty would never be confused for the team leader. Jensen was the horse and had been for three years.

But that season, its conclusion spilling over into January 2014, was Jensen's last in a college uniform. Wentz's time was near.

"I waited three years for my opportunity to go out there and finally start a game," Wentz said this week. "I ran with it."

And how.

The 6-foot-6 QB piloted the Bison to a 15-1 record last year and yet another national title. Wentz announced his arrival in NDSU's first contest last fall, a 34-14 pounding of FBS Iowa State, with an effort that included a 20-yard run complete with highlight-reel hurdle of a diving defender.

The scary thing, as Wentz leads the Bison into Missoula this Saturday for a 1:30 p.m. nationally televised showdown in ESPN's FCS Kickoff, is the Bison quarterback is only getting better, his coach affirmed.

"I think he really came into his own in the playoff run for us," NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said. "Gave himself a bunch of confidence.

"If Carson has a really, really good season, it'll set him up for success at the next level."

The pros will likely come calling, as they did for Jensen, though Wentz has perhaps a better shot at the highest level and the NFL. Jensen signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2014 but was cut before the season, landing up north with the CFL's Ottawa Redblacks.

In his first year as starter, Wentz threw for 3,111 yards and 25 touchdowns, completing 64 percent of his passes during another dream season for Fargo fans. His one-year exploits have the nation watching: Wentz is listed among preseason FCS player of the year candidates and is also ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s third-rated senior QB.

While his arm is Wentz's most dangerous weapon, the passer's legs make him a game changer.

"He's gonna get his plays," Montana first-year head coach Bob Stitt said. "He's a guy who can throw it and can run it. That poses problems when you have a QB that can do both.

"What I've seen, he's a talented guy. It's gonna be a challenge for our guys, but that's why you play. That's what you get excited for, to go out and do it against the best."

Wentz rushed for 642 yards in his junior campaign, adding another six TDs on the ground. Included in that yardage total were two games that eclipsed the 100-yard plateau.

***

This week's matchup may feature the tallest meeting of QBs in college football history, though no record of such a silly statistic is readily kept. Wentz's mobility provides the starkest contrast between the two.

To counter Wentz (6-6, 235 pounds), Montana will hand the ball to junior Brady Gustafson, a 6-foot-7, 235-pounder who will be making his first career start. Though visibility Saturday may be obscured by lingering smoke in the skies, there will be no blocked sight lines for these signal callers.

For the Bison in particular, playing in front of a packed house of rabid fans on the road, that will be important.

"Having that great vision, especially in a game of this magnitude with the noise, Carson's gonna be able to have a great picture of what the back seven are doing and be able to change plays," Coach Klieman said, referencing Montana's placement of its linebackers and defensive secondary.

Montanans may boast almost as loudly about their raucous home environment as their football team in general, and the legend seems to have drifted across the Great Plains.

The Bison have their own excellent home atmosphere in the Fargodome (seating capacity about 19,000), but Washington-Grizzly Stadium is different, Klieman has heard.

"I told the guys it's gonna be probably louder than Iowa State, louder than Kansas State," Klieman said, comparing Missoula to two Big 12 Conference venues. "There's just not gonna be as many people, but they're gonna be right on top of us.

"Take nothing away from those other environments, don't get me wrong. That's 27,000 sitting on that mountain."

Home field may have helped North Dakota State in its victory last season when the Griz came to Fargo, a 22-10 final. It was the fourth straight win for NDSU over the Grizzlies, pushing North Dakota State ahead to a 4-3 advantage all-time.

Two of those wins came back in 1969 and 1970 in the Camellia Bowl, then considered the "small-college" national championship held in Sacramento, California.

Grizzly fans will likely remember the last time NDSU visited to Missoula in 2003, the first home game under UM head coach Bobby Hauck. The Bison still played in Division II at the time, yet stormed back from a 24-2 deficit to win 25-24 thanks to a late touchdown pass on a fake field goal.

The Bison were forced to fly into Helena that year and bus over for the game because of wildfire smoke. So far no such arrangements are needed for this year's game, a department official told the Missoulian, and the Bison will arrive as planned Friday afternoon.

The Griz haven't beaten the Bison since a 27-0 blanking in Missoula in 1941.

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