For just the second time, these two blueblood FCS programs square off with a trip to Frisco on the line.
James Madison has reached the national championship game in 2016 (winning the title), 2017, and 2019. Sam Houston reached the title game in 2011 and 2012 and advanced to the semifinals in 2014, 2015, and 2017. The Bearkats and the Dukes met in the 2016 quarterfinals with JMU winning 65-7.
But this is a brand new version of SHSU, which it proved last week with a statement win against North Dakota State.
These are two championship-quality teams clashing Saturday. The game kicks off at 1:30 pm. CT on ABC.
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When JMU has the ball
JMU’s rushing attack looked impressive, as it has most of this spring, against North Dakota last week, rushing for 217 yards and 4.1 yards per carry. The Dukes can hit you with speed and power. Statistically, SHSU has had a top rushing defense dating back to 2019. The Bearkats just never had a chance to prove it against a more run-heavy, non-Southland team. Well, the Kats proved it in the quarterfinals, making the Bison have their worst offensive performance in years.
This isn’t the same defense JMU ran for 356 yards on in 2016 (607 total yards). In fact, it may not even be worth it for JMU coaches to turn on that film.
The Dukes will still try to soften the middle of SHSU’s defense with Latrele Palmer, but this looks more like a Percy Agyei-Obese/Jawon Hamilton-type game, two guys with elusiveness and speed. Getting a consistent push against Joseph Wallace and Trace Mascorro will be a challenge for JMU’s younger but improving offensive line.
NDSU offered zero threat passing the ball in the quarterfinals, an area where the Dukes continue to get stronger and something they can possibly exploit on SHSU’s defense. The Kats allow 68.9 rushing yards per game (No. 4 in the FCS, JMU is No. 3 at 66.4) and 278.4 passing yards a game (No. 90).
After throwing for less than 200 yards in the first three games with a combined three touchdowns and four interceptions, JMU quarterback Cole Johnson has thrown for more than 200 yards in each of the last four games with a combined five TDs and two interceptions. Against UND, he went 14-of-17 with a season-high 251 yards and two touchdowns. Antwane Wells Jr. has emerged as the best young WR in the FCS. In the playoffs, he’s caught 11 passes for 275 yards and three TDs.
If Johnson plays well, JMU has a good shot to win this game.
When SHSU has the ball
SHSU does a great job keeping a defense unbalanced. The Bearkats can hit the big play downfield or take advantage of underneath routes. Jequez Ezzard is the top playmaker, averaging an absurd 30 yards a catch for 608 yards and six touchdowns. WR Cody Chrest, WR Ife Adeyi, and RB Noah Smith are also heavily involved in the passing game as Eric Schmid spreads the love.
A defense can’t sit back in coverage, though, as the Kats have standout RB Ramon Jefferson, and Schmid can tuck the ball and run as well. Jefferson was a freshman All-American at Maine in 2018, although the Black Bears and JMU didn’t play that season.
SHSU’s offensive line has gotten better at run blocking during the new style of play transition. The Kats aren’t as up-tempo and don’t throw the ball a million times a game anymore. But the deep ball is still a key part of the offense, and the big guys have kept Schmid mostly clean, ranking just inside the Top 25 with 1.5 sacks allowed per game.
Mike Greene and the JMU defensive front need to make Schmid uncomfortable and create negative-yard plays on runs. When SHSU gets moving, it’s hard to slow down. The Dukes haven’t been as disruptive as past defenses, averaging 2.57 sacks a game (29th in the FCS) and 6.9 tackles for loss a game (36th). Still, JMU remains stout despite a new-look unit, ranking No. 4 in total defense (230.7 YPG) and No. 4 in scoring defense (13.4 PPG).
This is the best offense JMU has seen this spring. And it’s the best defense SHSU has seen.
Stay tuned for Friday’s semifinal score predictions.