BOZEMAN — Montana State's first two offensive possessions on a frigid Friday night were of the three-and-out variety, forcing punter Bryce Leighton onto the field for the first time in what seemed like an eternity.
Did William & Mary's defense have an answer for the Bobcats' vaunted rushing attack?
Short answer: No.
MSU's offense eventually found its usual rhythm and the Cats rolled to a 55-7 victory over the Tribe in an FCS quarterfinal playoff game at Bobcat Stadium. The win sends fourth-seeded Montana State (12-1) into the semifinal round for the second straight season and third time since 2019, where it will face the winner of a quarterfinal game on Saturday between No. 1 seed South Dakota State (11-1) and eighth-seeded Holy Cross (12-0).
Leighton punted three times on a frigid Friday night, but the Bobcats had another banner day. Quarterback Tommy Mellott rushed for three touchdowns and threw another, running back Isaiah Ifanse ran for 162 yards and two scores, and Taco Dowler took a punt back 79 yards for a TD as MSU dominated in all three phases.
"Real proud of our guys for coming out and really attacking this," MSU coach Brent Vigen said afterward. "Stylistically, how they were built and how we were built, it was going to be a matter of just how that first quarter would play out from a physicality perspective. I thought defensively we set the tone right from the get go.
"Offensively I know it took us a little while to get going, but hats off to our guys. Defense played great, and special teams-wise we were able to make some really big plays, and really offensively, we did the things we needed to do."
A 22-yard scoring run by Mellott on the last play of the first quarter gave the Bobcats a 10-0 lead. That was followed by a 68-yard TD gallop by Ifanse, who in the process became Montana State's career rushing leader with 3,690 yards, surpassing the previous record of 3,646 by MSU hall of famer Ryan Johnson (1998-2002).
Mellott had an 8-yard touchdown run in the second quarter and Blake Glessner tacked on a 50-yard field goal — the longest kick in MSU playoff history — to make the score 27-0 at halftime.
The onslaught didn't stop there. Ifanse and Mellott had back-to-back touchdown runs in the third quarter, and Mellott later found wideout Clevan Thomas on a 17-yard TD throw for a 48-0 advantage. Dowler's punt return made it 55-0 with 5:03 left in the third.
William & Mary, which came into the game averaging 276.7 rushing yards, was limited to 135 yards on the ground and 197 net yards of offense. The Tribe avoided a shutout when Bronson Yoder scored on a 2-yard run with 3:11 remaining, but the game was out of hand long before that.
"I'm disappointed in the way we performed," William & Mary coach Mike London said. "That's a very good football team. Montana State is well-coached. They're physical. I see why they were last year's runner-ups. They're a complete football team — offense, defense, special teams.
"We didn't do enough today to sustain drives and be successful in third-down situations. They did a good job of getting after us and we didn't do enough. My hat goes off to them."
Mellott, a sophomore from Butte who has now quarterbacked the Bobcats to five playoff wins in two years, completed 7 of 9 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. He also had 45 rushing yards on 10 carries. Led by Ifanse, the Bobcats piled up 328 rushing yards and five TDs on the ground.
The Bobcats extended their FCS best home winning streak to 20 games. William & Mary saw its eight-game winning streak come to an end. The Tribe finished what was one of the greatest seasons in program history with an 11-2 record.
The Bobcats will now await the winner of South Dakota State and Holy Cross. The Bobcats and SDSU squared off in the semifinals last season, a game won 31-17 by Montana State that sent the team into the national championship game for the first time since 1984.