The North Dakota State offense was held scoreless in the second half of the FCS national championship game against James Madison, but the Bison had the defense to withstand that. Big stop after big stop allowed NDSU to preserve its 17-3 lead in the first half. The Dukes scored right before halftime and early in the third quarter to make it 17-13, but the Bison defense sealed the game from there to win their sixth title in seven seasons.
Whether it was defensive tackle Nate Tanguay intercepting a pass a few plays after Bison quarterback Easton Stick was sacked and lost a fumble, which led to NDSU taking a 14-3 lead in the second quarter five plays later on a Darrius Shepherd 50-yard touchdown catch. Or cornerback Marquise Bridges intercepting a pass at NDSU's own 3-yard line in the third quarter when the Dukes were driving and down 17-13.
The most crucial stop, though, was the last one. NDSU's field goal to extend its lead to seven points was blocked with 4:37 remaining in the game. NDSU appeared to force a punt six plays later, but the Dukes decided to fake it on a fourth-and-nine and punter Harry O'Kelly picked up a first down to the NDSU 29-yard line.
"We just remained focused and calm," senior linebacker Nick DeLuca said. "Whenever you let up an explosive play, obviously the next thing is how you're going to respond to it. I thought our defense did a great job of responding to adversity all season long and really especially today. We knew we were going to go up against a great offense. Just being able to stay focused and remain calm was a big focus for us."
MORE CHAMPIONSHIP COVERAGE:
HERDER: Story of the Game
MCLAUGHLIN: Best FCS Title Game In 40 Years
HERDER: The North Dakota State Dynasty is as Strong as Ever
With the clock ticking down to its final minutes and JMU 20 yards away from winning the game, NDSU came up with two more huge quarterback hurries. On a third-and-11, Derrek Tuszka forced Bryan Schor to get rid of the ball for an incompletion. Then on a fourth-and-16, Schor had to scramble and run around the pocket. Linebacker Jabril Cox came barreling in and Schor had to heave a throw into the endzone, which was knocked down to seal the game.
“Most important thing to us is don't flinch," Bridges said. "We're going to go out there and do the same thing we've done all game. Just compete. That's all we had to do. When that ball hit the ground, it felt great.”
In the game, NDSU intercepted Schor twice and sacked him four times while also forcing a fumble after a long completion. Schor went 14-32 passing, although he wasn't helped with several drops. The Dukes gained just 93 yards rushing on 30 attempts. And the Bison offense did their part to own a 37:41-22:19 time of possession advantage.
"Once we started the fourth quarter, it was finish what you started," NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said. "This is the fifth pattern that (strength and conditioning coach Jim) Kramer is taking you through when it's July and it's 95 degrees. Finish what you started in July. Those guys never flinched. They made a great call and had a fake punt. We went out there and stopped them. Until they cross the goal line, there's no points. We said, 'if they don't score, they can't beat us.'"