BOZEMAN — Montana State football head coach Brent Vigen had to coax a smile out of his ever-stoic quarterback Tommy Mellott.
The Butte High graduate and true freshman had just racked up his fourth touchdown of the game — a 17-yard strike to Lance McCutcheon — to increase the Bobcats' lead to 31-17 over South Dakota State in the fourth quarter of MSU's first semifinal home game in nearly 40 years.
But Mellott, who had just delivered the game's final score, needed a little reassurance from his coach that he could enjoy the moment.
"I said, 'it's okay to smile now,'" said Vigen with a grin of his own after the Bobcats' defense stymied the Jackrabbits' the remainder of the game to sew up MSU's first trip to the FCS championship game since 1984. "But knowing what was in front of him, he was probably going to have to carry the ball a bunch."
As he's done for the entirety of this postseason through his first three starts at quarterback, Mellott took care of business, helping run out the clock as he amassed 155 rushing yards on a staggering 34 carries to along with a pair of rushing scores and two touchdown throws on 233 passing yards.
With All-American running back Isaiah Ifanse sidelined, SDSU knew without question that Mellott would be the centerpiece of Montana State's offensive attack. But the Jackrabbits couldn't rattle him.
As MSU quarterback Tucker Rovig took the final knee out of the victory formation to put a bow on one of the most significant victories in program history, Mellott was visibly emotional on the sideline as he tried to wrap his mind around what he had just accomplished after being promoted into the starting role just before the playoffs.
The kid from Butte had just helped propel his team to its first title game appearance since long before he was born. The overriding sentiment in the game's aftermath as fans stormed the field? One of gratitude.
"I'm just unbelievably grateful for the blessings I've been given," said Mellott after the game. "The Lord has blessed me with this opportunity and all the guys around me supporting me and loving me. I couldn't ask for more."
South Dakota State, which was gunning for a repeat trip to the title game after falling to Sam Houston State in the spring season, ultimately ran out of answers to the Mellott riddle. The Jackrabbits' defense — deploying a number of coverage schemes to try and bottle up Mellott — simply couldn't contain the lightning-quick, fleet-footed quarterback when he decided to bolt.
Asked what the moment meant to him, Mellott simply said he's now just focused on MSU's final game of the season.
"I think years down the road I'll look back and have a different perspective," Mellott said. "But right now I'm just focused on what we're doing right now."
As much as Mellott and MSU's offense shined on the national stage on Saturday, the Bobcats' defense played just as critical a roll, surrendering 17 first-half points to the potent SDSU offense before shuting out the Jackrabbits' after the break while forcing a fumble, an interception and three fourth-down stops.
Senior defensive end Daniel Hardy was scouring the field after the game, searching for his family. He instead found himself mobbed by exuberant fans.
"Just the number of people who walked up to me and shook my hand — alumni, fans, students just saying thank you for playing at Montana State, it was a wild feeling and almost surreal," Hardy said. "We're headed to the national championship, this is everything we have worked for. We got one game left and it's all chips down. We're going all in on this."
The Bobcats now have a date with North Dakota State, the teams that knocked them out of the playoffs in 2018 and 2019, on Jan. 8 in Frisco, Texas. Vigen played tight end for the Bison and then joined NDSU's coaching staff, eventually becoming offensive coordinator under head coach Craig Bohl before joining him at Wyoming in 2014.
He knows the Bison, and the Bison are familiar with him but he said ultimately that shouldn't have much bearing on the outcome.
"They're certainly going to have familiarity on their side," Vigen said. "I have a little bit, but it's been awhile. We'll get our guys as prepared as we can and go down there and play as well as we can."