FCS Championship: Can JMU spring a surprise on dominant NDSU?
The College Football National Championship may be taking place In New Orleans on Monday, but for this weekend the focus of college football fans will be Frisco, Texas for the FCS National Championship.
It promises to be an absolute classic, as the North Dakota State University Bison take on the James Madison University Dukes in a game with more than a little recent history.
The last time the two teams, easily the best two in the FCS Division right now, collided was the 2017 FCS Championship Game when the Bison successfully executed revenge for defeat in 2016.
It’s becoming one of College Football’s tastiest rivalries and we’re set for another enthralling instalment in a packed out Toyota Stadium.
Let’s look at the two teams, and the keys to today’s game.
North Dakota State Bison
When you describe the NDSU Bison football program just one word comes to mind.
It’s difficult to know where to start when describing just how devastatingly brilliant their control over the FCS Division has been. If you think the New England Patriots have dominated the NFL, or that Alabama have been a dominant force in the FBS, you’re only scratching the surface of the Bison’s accomplishments.
A record breaking 7, yes SEVEN, FCS Championship titles.
Since 2010, only two other teams have etched their name on the FCS Championship trophy. The Bison have an incredible 32-2 record in the FCS Playoffs. They’re overall record since 2011 is .933.
It’s a phenomenal rate of success. It appears that nothing can stop the stampede of the Bison.
A change of coach? Not a problem. Craig Bohl was the winningest head coach in program history with a 104-32 record and three FCS Championships. They didn’t miss a beat with his departure and won four more under Chris Kleiman.
Kleiman’s departure after 2018 wasn’t the only loss with the potential to derail the program. At the same time, quarterback Easton Stick declared for the NFL Draft. A fifth round pick of the Los Angeles Chargers, Stick holds the FCS record for wins by a quarterback.
A change of quarterback? Not a problem! Stick had replaced Carson Wentz in Fargo with only the 2016 playoff loss to JMU as a minor bump in the smooth ride to three consecutive titles.
2019 has been another smooth transition. From Kleiman and Stick to first year head coach, Matt Entz, and freshman quarterback, Trey Lance, there’s been no drop off. The Bison are currently on a record setting 36 game winning streak.
It’s a streak that was born from defeat by today’s opponents.
James Madison Dukes
The Dukes may not have the recent level of success that NDSU has achieved, however they are still a major power in the FCS.
They have sent players to the NFL, most recently with cornerback Jimmy Moreland who was selected by the Washington Redskins in the 2019 NFL Draft. Former kicker, Scott Norwood, is the leading point scorer in Buffalo Bills history. Most famously, College Football and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Charles Haley was a Duke.
Let’s not forget they’re one of only three programs to have won an FCS Championship since 2010. They knocked out NDSU on the way to a 2016 FCS Championship to add to the 2004 NCAA Division 1-AA Championship they won under head coach Micky Matthews. He who went on to secure 100+ wins with the Dukes.
In his first year as head coach with the program, Curt Cignetti has made inroads into that total. They have won 14 consecutive games this season, with their only defeat coming in the season opener against FBS opposition. The Dukes played West Virginia close in Morgantown, taking the lead but falling to a 20-13 loss.
JMU were riding high on a winning streak the last time they faced the Bison in 2017. Heading into the game in Frisco, the Dukes had been undefeated in 26 games. Although they fell to a 17-13 defeat, it remains the third longest win streak in FCS history, behind NDSU’s current and previous streaks.
Will today be the day that JMU end the NDSU streak, and secure their third National Championship?
Keys to the FCS Championship Game
The game has all the ingredients to be a close game. Both teams are offensively sound, and both teams play hard, restricting defense.
So, who will prevail?
The first quarter is going to be decisive. If JMU want to run with the Bison for the full 60 minutes, they need to keep it tight in the first 15.
NDSU have outscored opponents 154-24 in the first quarter of games in 2019. If they get into an early lead, they have the rushing offense to manage the clock the rest of the way out.
They also have the top rated passing defense in the FCS, so if JMU find themselves short on time with points to make up, it’s going to be tough for quarterback Ben DiNucci and his offense to throw on the Bison.
Although JMU have a balanced offense, with DiNucci throwing for 3237 yards and 27 touchdowns, their rushing offense is better. It’s ranked 10th in the FCS, with Percy Agyei-Obese rushing for 1143 yards, Jawon Hamilton on 896 yards, and DiNucci himself rushing for 560 yards and 7 touchdowns.
However, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to that NDSU rushing offense for this is the very key to the game for the Bison.
Run game the deciding factor in the FCS Championship
NDSU have the 4th ranked rushing offense in the FCS which has contributed to the 7th best scoring offense in the nation.
Running back Ty Brooks leads the way with 940 yards, but it’s the rushing ability of quarterback Trey Lance that makes the offense so difficult to defend against. He has 934 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, to go with his 2714 passing yards and 28 passing touchdowns. He’s a true dual threat quarterback.
Luckily for JMU, they have the best rushing defense in the nation. They also have the number 3 ranked scoring defense, limiting the opposition to just 14.9 points per game.
The importance of the rush defense can’t be understated in terms of the keys to a JMU victory.
They’ve limited teams to 61.1 yards per game. Over the course of the season they have restricted teams to 916 yards, that’s less yards than Trey Lance has on his own through 2019.
The Dukes defense has only allowed 7 rushing touchdowns all season.
The FCS Championship will come down to who can control the ground game. On paper, you can make a very convincing argument for JMU to take the game in a shock result.
However, as we know, football isn’t played on computers, calculators, or even paper.
The game of football is played out on a field and on a field in Frisco today, we’re going to see a great one.
Oliver Hodgkinson is a College Football writer for The Touchdown. He also writes on the NFL for the Pro Football Network. You can hear his opinions on all things College Football as one third of the College Chaps Podcast.