Montana native Tommy Mellott sat on the bench in tears as the final seconds ticked off in Montana State's FCS semifinal playoff game at home. The reactions from teammates and coaches to the true freshman quarterback were congratulatory, not consolatory.
The emotions had suddenly taken over Mellott, who began the year as a fourth-string quarterback and now as the starter has led his home-state team to its first national championship game since 1984.
''We felt like he was he was capable of doing what he's done,'' first-year Montana State coach Brent Vigen said. ''Maybe not to this degree, I guess, but knew he had the capabilities of not only making plays for us, but continuing to improve.''
After initially getting into games for the Bobcats (12-2) on special teams or by lining up at receiver, Mellott became their starting quarterback after the regular season ended. Montana State plays eight-time FCS champion North Dakota State in the national title game Saturday in Frisco, Texas.
Mellott accounted for 11 touchdowns (six rushing, four passing and one receiving) in his first three career starts, all in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. He has 411 yards rushing and 449 passing this postseason.
''There's a lot to like. His toughness and his leadership is kind of where it starts. Everybody feeds off that,'' said senior FCS All-America linebacker Troy Andersen, a former Bobcats quarterback and running back who played high school ball in Dillon, about an hour south of Mellott's hometown of Butte. ''He's doing whatever we ask him to do and doing it at a super high level. I think there's a lot of trust and just kind of a new sense of, I mean, energy and revival for the offense, and that kind of goes throughout the entire team.''
With the benefit of a bye week that came with being the No. 8 playoff seed, Vigen opted to make the quarterback switch going into the playoffs.
Former North Carolina State transfer Matthew McKay, the starter throughout the regular season, was inconsistent down the stretch for the Bobcats at a time when Mellott began getting more snaps at quarterback. McKay has since gone back into the transfer portal.
Even while being used in different ways in games during the regular season, Mellott was in quarterback meetings and went through all the positional drills. He made an impact when he got opportunities as a running quarterback, like his three TDs on 13 carries in a 20-13 win over Idaho on Nov. 13.
''When we got to the end of the regular season, we felt like we needed to make a change, and felt like he was in position to do it,'' Vigen said.
Mellott ran for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the 26-7 playoff-opening win against Tennessee-Martin, then accounted for five TDs in the quarterfinal round against defending champion Sam Houston State. He caught a touchdown, threw one and ran for another in the first 16 minutes of a 42-19 victory over the Bearkats.
''Just getting immersed into a game, it's much different than practice, obviously. So as a quarterback this entire year, I've been growing just getting opportunities in practice,'' Mellott said.
With leading rusher Isaiah Ifanse out of the semifinal against South Dakota State, Mellott ran for 155 yards and two scores while also throwing for 233 yards and two TDs.
Team captain Tucker Rovig, the starting quarterback in 2019 before the Bobcats didn't play the 2020 season because of the pandemic, took the final kneel-down snaps in front of the home fans against South Dakota State, the runner-up to Sam Houston in last May's title game. Mellott had asked Vigen to let Rovig be on the field for those.
Mellott attempted only four passes in the regular season. He has completed 16 of 26 passes with four TDs and no interceptions the past two playoff games.
''Really throughout these last few games with the playoffs, just getting opportunities to be in front of fans and playing against another team and against their defensive coordinator and all of that, it makes a huge difference,'' he said. ''So I really think it's just been getting those reps, that's the biggest thing.''
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