A battle of FCS titans takes place Friday with a spot in the national championship game on the line. North Dakota State, the No. 2 seed and winners of eight FCS titles in the 2010s, hosts No. 3 seed James Madison, who is the only team to beat NDSU at the Fargodome in the playoffs, doing so in 2016 en route to a national championship.
NDSU and JMU met in the title game in the 2017 and 2019 seasons as the Bison won both by one score.
It’s turned into a great playoff rivalry between the top two programs in the FCS, but this is the last time we’ll see it as the Dukes begin their transition to the FBS after this season.
For JMU, departing the FCS with a title in hand would be a storybook finish. For NDSU, beating the latest team to move up a subdivision, a level NDSU likely wishes it had a more realistic path to get into, would be a sweet feeling, if not a bittersweet feeling.
Here’s how the matchup looks heading into the 8:15 p.m. CT game that will air on ESPN2.
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NDSU’s Offense vs. JMU’s Defense
NDSU is running the hell out of the ball. The Bison rank No. 2 in rushing offense behind Davidson’s option attack, averaging 281.3 YPG on the ground. After being humbled in their only loss of the season at South Dakota State, the Bison have rushed for 356.0 YPG vs. their last four opponents.
SMU transfer TaMerik Williams has settled into a more featured role at RB, although the Bison continue to rotate at that position. In the last four games, Williams has run for 400 yards and eight TDs. Standout FB/RB hybrid Hunter Luepke also looks healthy now, and the 6-foot-1 and 236-pounder carried the ball nine times for 69 yards and a score in the quarterfinals against ETSU.
NDSU’s o-line has played its best football as a unit, and once again has elite bookends at tackle in Cody Mauch and Cordell Volson. It will go up against its toughest test yet vs. one of the few teams that can match the Bison’s physicality. JMU is fourth in the FCS in stopping the run, allowing 82.5 rushing yards a game. The Dukes are also one of the top scoring defenses, ranking No. 7 with 15.1 points allowed per game. NDSU’s offense averages 34.8 PPG, which ranks No. 11.
The Dukes are big and nasty up front with depth, starting with one of the top interior defensive linemen in the FCS in Mike Greene, who muscles the middle at 6-foot-3 and 293 pounds. Towson transfer Bryce Carter and Isaac Ukwu are highly disruptive on the edge, combining for 35 TFLs, 17 sacks, 12 QB hurries, and five forced fumbles. Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey is as good of a linebacker as you’ll find in the FCS. He’s totaled 106 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, four interceptions, and six QB hurries.
With all of that said, the NDSU rushing offense vs. the JMU defense is storyline No. 1B heading into this game. Storyline No. 1A is whether NDSU All-American receiver and projected 2022 mid-round NFL Draft pick Christian Watson will play. Watson missed the first two playoff games with a hamstring injury. Along with All-American TE Noah Gindorff suffering a season-ending lower-leg injury in the second-round game, the Bison may be down their two most reliable targets. If Watson (who can stretch the field at 6-foot-4 and with blazing speed) can’t go, JMU would be able to hone in on the run even more without safety help over the top, which is exactly what it did in the 2016 semifinal win when the Bison had no rhythm throwing the ball.
However, to JMU’s credit, the Dukes held Watson without a catch in the title game two years ago. The difference in that matchup was the running ability of QB Trey Lance. The Dukes didn’t have an answer for the QB run game, so look for NDSU to utilize Quincy Patterson. The Virginia Tech transfer was the starting QB to begin this season before getting replaced by Cam Miller. Patterson (6-foot-3 and 246 pounds) still has offensive packages and rushed the ball seven times for 84 yards and a TD against SIU and six times for 29 yards against ETSU.
Miller has taken over as the starting QB for the second season in a row. His best game of the year came in the regular-season finale vs. South Dakota, where Miller went 19-of-23 for 219 yards and a TD. The passing game hasn’t looked great in the two playoff games, though. Miller went 9-of-14 for 88 yards and an interception vs. SIU, and 10-of-17 for 123 yards vs. ETSU. That’s been fine against previous opponents who couldn’t hold up against NDSU’s running attack, but the Bison will need to make more plays through the air against JMU.
Teams have had more success throwing the ball on JMU than running. The Dukes are still pretty good against the pass, though, ranking No. 21 with 187.8 YPG. Greg Ross, who began his career at North Carolina, is a talented DB. The 6-foot-1 corner has four interceptions and 12 pass breakups. A safe assumption is JMU will stack the box to force NDSU into passing situations. How NDSU’s pass-catchers fare against JMU’s outside and slot corners will be key, not only in making plays downfield but in their ability to get open so Miller can find a rhythm. The Dukes rank No. 11 with three sacks per game. NDSU is 13th with 1.15 sacks allowed per game.
JMU’s Offense vs. NDSU’s Defense
With injuries to All-American RB Percy Agyei-Obese and promising youngster Kaelon Black early in the season along with a younger offensive line, the Dukes haven’t been nearly as dynamic running the ball as past years. The good news is Cole Johnson is playing like a top QB in the FCS, completing 67.5 percent of his passes for 3,569 yards, 39 TDs, and just two interceptions. Johnson has two big-time weapons in Antwane Wells Jr. (78 catches for 1,197 yards and 14 TDs) and Kris Thornton (77 catches for 1,050 yards and 13 TDs).
JMU ranks 16th in the FCS with 281.4 passing yards per game. The Bison are 10th in pass defenses, allowing 174.5 YPG. NDSU owns the No. 1 scoring defense (11 PPG) as it goes up against JMU’s No. 4 scoring offense (40.2 PPG).
The other good news is Latrele Palmer, a bruising back at 6-foot and 220 pounds who can pull away in the open field, had his best game last week against Montana, rushing 19 times for 167 yards and one TD. He was the most effective runner against NDSU two years ago in the title game, averaging 5.5 yards per attempt on several good gains in the second half.
JMU starts three redshirt freshmen on the interior of the offensive line. Nick Kidwell is a sophomore at right tackle, earning First Team All-CAA honors. Liam Fornadel is at left tackle, a multi-time All-American who missed most of September and October with an injury. The Dukes have struggled to run the ball consistently between the tackles this season, although statistically, they are 35th in the FCS in rushing yards, averaging 164.1 YPG.
Running through the teeth of NDSU’s defense would be a bold strategy as the Bison are No. 3 in stopping the run (81.8 YPG). NDSU has gotten more disruptive on the d-line compared to the spring. DE Brayden Thomas has 7.5 TFLs and five sacks in the last five games. DT Eli Mostaert is effective on the interior with 10 TFLs and 7.5 sacks this season. The Bison are strong at linebacker and safety, per usual. Jasir Cox and James Kaczor are safety-like outside linebackers, so the Bison are equipped to defend an offense with multi-WR sets without having to get out of their base defense often.
The CBs are young, though, an area JMU will look to exploit.
Courtney Eubanks is the top corner as a sophomore, Jayden Price is the opposite starter as a junior, and redshirt freshman Marques Sigle is getting more reps as the third corner. NDSU hasn’t faced a lot of elite WRs this season. Isaiah Weston is one, catching five passes for 181 yards and one TD against the Bison. Missouri State standouts Tyrone Scott caught six passes for 104 yards and Xavier Lane had five receptions for 91 yards vs. NDSU.
The question for NDSU’s defense is how well can its DBs cover Wells and Thornton? The two are tremendous route-runners, have good ball skills, and are dangerous after the catch. Devin Ravenel is another threat, as he showed last week in an 87-yard catch-and-run touchdown. The question for JMU is how well can the o-line hold up to keep Johnson comfortable and let the downfield routes develop? Johnson isn’t a statue at 6-foot-5 and can get nice yardage with his legs, but he doesn’t escape the pocket and extend plays quite like a Bryan Schor or Ben DiNucci. JMU is 56th with two sacks allowed per game. NDSU is fifth with 3.46 sacks per game.
JMU’s Harry O’Kelly is averaging 40.31 yards per punt with 16 inside of the 20-yard line. Ethan Ratke is the NCAA all-time leader in career field goals with 101. He is 29-32 this season with a long of 47 yards.
Jack Sroba averages 6.05 yards per punt return, and Solomon Vanhorse ranks No. 5 in the FCS with 29.7 yards per kick return, including one TD.
The Dukes rank eighth in kickoff return defense (15.1 yards per return) and also in punt return defense (3.7).
NDSU’s Kaedin Steindorf averages 39.9 yards per punt with 16 inside of the 20-yard line. Jake Reinholz is 13-18 on field goals with a long of 46.
Christian Watson has returned nine kicks for an average of 23.3 yards, and RaJa Nelson has returned 10 kicks for a 23.5 average. Both would rank inside the Top 30 in the FCS. Jayden Price has a 13.3 punt return average (No. 6 in the FCS) and one TD.
NDSU is No. 98 in kickoff return defense (22.5 per return) and 33rd in punt return defense (5.85).
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