Montana's Jeremiah Kose, right, tackles North Dakota State running back King Frazier last year in Fargo, N.D.

The talk started about the time the green-and-yellow confetti rained down in Frisco, Texas, back in January. The North Dakota State Bison, that day crowned FCS national champions for a fourth consecutive year, would come to Missoula in the very next FCS game contested.

Nearly eight months later, the hype machine on full blast, kickoff has finally arrived. The Bison and Grizzlies get under way Saturday afternoon at 1:30, the only NCAA Division I college football game in the land this day as part of ESPN's FCS Kickoff to the season.

The only thing better than watching a game like that might be playing in it. Or perhaps coaching.

"When you play great teams early, your team will never see better later," Montana first-year head coach Bob Stitt said. "It really helps you in your conference season to play somebody that tough early."

Whether true or not the Grizzlies have little time to work their way to midseason form. The Bison have no intention of halting their already record streak of titles at four.

It is a much different NDSU squad than the one that ran over the Griz in Fargo, North Dakota, last September. That contest wasn't as close as the 22-10 final score might suggest, though UM was within two points at halftime. The score could have been far more lopsided had the Dakotans fared better than 1 of 5 in red-zone chances cashed in for touchdowns.

The Bison piled high 447 yards of total offense.

"We played really well in the red zone, but we didn't stop them on first and second down," said Griz defensive end Derek Crittenden. "That's sort of the key to that offense. They just want to pound the rock."

Or rather wanted to pound the rock. The Bison are without All-American running back John Crockett, now with the NFL's Green Bay Packers following Crockett's near 2,000-yard senior campaign last year. A little more will be placed on the arm of North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz in that case, though he's more than capable as well.

In his first year as starter, Wentz passed for more than 3,000 yards a year ago with 25 touchdowns and will have his favorite target, sixth-year senior Zach Vraa, back at receiver. Vraa is within striking distance of nearly every career program record.

"Losing Crockett is big for us because he was a heck of a player and made some plays I don't know a lot of guys can make," Wentz said. "But we have about five running backs that are capable of having a big day any day."

Well at least four, NDSU coach Chris Klieman said. The Bison will be RB by committee in 2015 with juniors Chase Morlock and King Frazier leading the way. Freshmen Lance Dunn and Bruce Anderson will also factor in, the coach added.

"We're got some packages where there's a couple guys on the field," he said of his backs. "You'd like to have a guy separate himself, but I don't see that happening anytime soon."

Running back is a rare position of inexperience for the Bison offense, which has eight total starters back. Four offensive linemen are among that group.

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The Grizzlies must not allow Wentz and the methodic NDSU offense to get rolling. The longer the Griz defense is on the field, the more difficult it will be for the home offense to turn over its engine.

"It doesn't bode well to have an up-tempo offense on the sideline," Stitt said.


Saturday will mark the debut of Montana's heralded but mysterious offense. The Bison have been relegated to watching tape of Stitt's previous team, Colorado School of Mines, for hints as to what Montana may run.

Stitt seems happy with where the offense is as of game day, though the Grizzlies will be far more dangerous a few weeks down the road.

"Coming out of that third (preseason) scrimmage, we really felt for the first time we were moving the ball consistently," Stitt said of his team's recent practice that was closed to the public and media. "You're gonna see our offense continue to get better and grow as the season goes on."

For now he likes the matchups of his receivers against a depleted Bison secondary. First-time Griz starting quarterback Brady Gustafson's deep-play threats Jamaal Jones and Ellis Henderson are licking their chops over facing a pair of sophomore safeties with no starting experience.

The Bison do return senior cornerbacks CJ Smith and Jordan Champion, but Smith has missed most of fall recovering from a knee injury that dates back to spring. Redshirt freshman Jalen Allison is his replacement.

"Our defense, sort of similar to our offense last year 'cause we knew we had guys that were capable of it that were in the program, that had the talent, but just hadn't had the opportunity to show it," Wentz said of his D', which could be down to just three returning starters if Smith must sit out.

The Bison lost all three starting linebackers, while on the other side Montana returns its three, though senior Herbert Gamboa will miss Saturday's game serving a disciplinary suspension.

The Griz are down a pair of graduated D-linemen -- namely UM's all-time sack leader Zack Wagenamnn --  and give up some major pounds to the Bison's big front. It's just one of the many places the Bison seem to have the advantage.

But yet...

"On paper we're the underdog," conceded Crittenden, the Grizzlies' defensive captain, "but that's why you play the game."

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