Healthy, intact lineups are vital for FCS finalists Montana State, North Dakota State
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By CRAIG HALEY
(Stats Perform) - The X-factor surrounding the 2021 FCS championship game is who potentially won't play for Montana State or North Dakota State on Jan. 8 in Frisco, Texas.
Each national finalist hopes to get back an offensive All-American from injury - North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson, who's yet to appear in the playoffs due to a hamstring issue, and Montana State running back Isaiah Ifanse, who was sidelined in the semifinal round by a sore knee.
While the three-week break between the semis and the championship matchup aids both players, as well as any of their teammates who is healing an injury, there's another medical concern hanging over the two rosters - COVID-19.
During this time off for No. 2 seed NDSU (13-1) and No. 8 seed Montana State (12-2), the FBS level of college football has shown how the national surge of positive COVID cases can have a negative impact - five bowl games have been canceled and several others underwent a change of teams. That a key player won't be on the Toyota Stadium field for the FCS title game also is a disappointing possibility.
"Obviously, COVID's still going on, so you want to be extra careful," Montana State All-America linebacker Troy Andersen said. "No one wants to miss the national championship."
Coaches Matt Entz of NDSU and Brent Vigen of MSU were both optimistic during an NCAA video conference on Thursday that their teams are avoiding the surge in which federal data shows the naton's daily average of new COVID infections is nearing 500,000, a record level. Their teams have returned from Christmas weekend to basically empty campuses, so the feeling is the coaches, players and staff are fairly isolated, with Entz calling it a "natural bubble."
"At this time right now, we're just following the protocols that we've had all season long," the third-year coach said. "Our kids have done an outstanding job of maintaining their health and safety throughout - that's been our No. 1 priority since the start of this process - and I'm referring to probably March 2020. So I feel like we're in a good spot right now. I'm more concerned with some of the injuries we have from a football standpoint, and, hopefully, we can get over the hump with those."
Said Vigen, a former player and assistant coach at NDSU, who's trying to match Entz by winning an FCS championship in his first season as a head coach: "I think we're in position where I can confidently say, at this point as we stand, we're not going to be missing anybody. Obviously, we've got aways to go yet before we get on that plane (on Wednesday) and even getting down there. To say it's not a concern, I'd would be remiss, I mean, it's a real concern. As we broke before Christmas, I think things were just escalating. At the same time, I felt like keeping our guys here wasn't super healthy, either - just mentally.
"In a lot of ways, I feel like we're back to how we were last year as far as masking and distancing and all that, but with the clear intention of mind, we have to get down as full a roster as we can to Texas, and then, obviously, have as many guys on the field on the eighth."
Updated December 30, 2021