“It’ll be cold, it’ll be dark, it’ll be perfect,” Mike Houston famously said of hosting a Friday night FCS quarterfinal in his time as James Madison head coach.
The arrangement is a familiar spot for the Dukes, but for the foreseeable future, Friday evening’s 7:00 pm eastern tilt with Montana on ESPN2 will be the last primetime quarterfinal contested at Bridgeforth Stadium, the finale of an event that feels like de facto FCS tradition thanks to the frequency with which it has occurred in brackets year to year.
As it unveiled in November, JMU is headed to the FBS Sun Belt Conference, with reclassification beginning in 2022. As such, the Dukes are branding this playoff appearance “The Final Run.”
Montana showed the prowess necessary to unceremoniously end that run when it dumped Big Sky rival Eastern Washington in the second round 57-41.
Some will argue that this matchup is the high-appeal game of the week in the quarterfinal round, and thus we’ll take no further the introduction.
James Madison’s Offense vs. Montana’s Defense
JMU quarterback Cole Johnson ran away with “The Cole Bowl” in the Dukes’ second-round win over Southeastern Louisiana and its own renowned QB, Cole Kelley, to the tune of Johnson’s JMU-playoff-record-tying five passing touchdowns.
The romp was a continuation of the hyper-productive season that Johnson has enjoyed in fall 2021, which has landed him Sam Herder’s superlative for Best QB remaining in the playoff field.
Johnson and his youthful offensive line featuring multiple freshmen will be challenged by Montana’s blitz-happy and often complex defensive front. The Grizzlies have 41 team sacks to their name; their 3.42 sacks per game rank sixth nationally.
If Johnson can reliably deliver throws on ample time, though, star wide receivers Antwane Wells Jr. and Kris Thornton have a favorable matchup on the Griz back end. Lurking in the Montana secondary, however, is junior cornerback Justin Ford, whose nine interceptions are tops in the country. James Madison can be expected to air it out, but Johnson would be wise to be cautious with Ford.
Montana’s Offense vs. James Madison’s Defense
The Grizzlies are known for stifling defense, and for good reason, with ferocious linebacker Patrick O’Connell a top-three finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award and Ford not far behind in finalist rankings. The top trio of Buchanan contenders is honored in Frisco, where the award recipient is announced.
Amid that extensive defensive recognition, Montana’s offense is, perhaps comparatively quietly, on the uptick. The Griz are scoring just over 37 points per game since Nov. 6. UM will need to convert red-zone opportunities at a better clip, though, entering its trip to JMU with a 24-of-47 red-zone touchdown rate (51%).
Montana QB Cam Humphrey enters with 16 passing scores and two rushing. It’s a diverse rushing backfield for the Grizzlies, with eight ball carriers notching at least double-digit rushing attempts on the season. Xavier Harris (66.8 YPG) and Junior Bergen (42.4 YPG) lead the charge.
They will encounter JMU’s 15.8 PPG scoring defense, keyed by linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey (94 total tackles, two sacks). Mike Greene and Towson grad transfer Bryce Carter anchor the defensive line.
Dukes kicker Ethan Ratke is a fixture in the CAA and FCS record books. For the fall, Ratke is a whopping 29-of-32 on field-goal attempts with a long make of 47 yards. It’s unlikely that there’s a reasonable distance in the neighborhood of 45-plus yards for which JMU isn’t content to roll with Ratke, the active FCS career-points-scored leader.
For Montana, Malik Flowers remains one of the most dominant kick returners in the FCS. Flowers, on 11 returns, is averaging 36.2 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and a long scamper of 99 yards. James Madison might be well-served kicking away from Flowers and toward the shrubbery beyond one of Bridgeforth’s end zones or into the Marching Royal Dukes at the other end zone.
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