The MVFC and CAA collide for some Sunday night football when North Dakota travels to 3-seed James Madison. It will be the first meeting between the Fighting Hawks and Dukes in UND’s first FCS quarterfinals showing.
The Fighting Hawks dispatched MVFC foe Missouri State 44-10 in the first round to improve to 11-1 inside the Alerus Center in the postseason while ending a month-plus-long layoff from game action caused by various cancellations.
Elsewhere, JMU notched a first-round win over quality non-conference competition in SoCon champion VMI. The Keydets’ feel-good story ended as the Dukes rushed for over 300 yards, building a three-score lead, before holding off VMI 31-24.
It sets up JMU’s ninth playoff matchup with a Valley opponent (the Dukes enter their bout with Valley newcomer North Dakota at 4-4 all-time vs. the MVFC).
When UND has the ball
Any concern of rust for the UND offense was quickly alleviated against Missouri State. The Fighting Hawks returned to the form that saw them defeat fellow quarterfinalists South Dakota State and Southern Illinois in the regular season, as they scored a touchdown on offense, defense, and special teams in the win.
For North Dakota, it all starts with First Team All-MVFC running back Otis Weah, who led the conference in nearly every rushing category, pacing the league in yards per game (114), yards per carry (7.5), and total touchdowns (7). Weah’s way is paved by a fellow all-conference player in offensive lineman Nathan Nguon. Weah’s statistical dominance of the Valley is especially impressive when one considers that SDSU’s Pierre Strong Jr., a perennial All-American, is a conference rival.
UND’s offense remains versatile, however, and JMU’s Curt Cignetti complimented the Fighting Hawks’ balance this week. It was for good reason: Second Team All-MVFC quarterback Tommy Schuster has been a stable force all season, finishing in the Valley’s top four in every passing category and tossing a league-leading eight touchdown passes in the regular season.
When JMU has the ball
James Madison’s rise to its stature as an FCS powerhouse has historically been marked by great to elite QB play. This spring, Cole Johnson and Gage Moloney have combined to be plenty serviceable passers, but the running back room earns the rightful spotlight. Against VMI, Jawon Hamilton rushed for a career-high 171 yards, including a JMU and FCS-record 99-yard touchdown gallop. That field-long scamper was utterly backbreaking for VMI. Not to be outdone, Hamilton’s backfield mate, Percy Agyei-Obese, tallied 110 yards and a score.
If it is to walk away from Bridgeforth Stadium with a win Sunday evening, North Dakota will need to continue its steady production of tackles for loss and sacks. It will not come easily against a traditionally stout JMU offensive line, let alone on the Dukes’ home field.
“To get quarterback sacks, you got to have success on the early downs,” UND head coach Bubba Schweigert said. “To get teams into throwing situations. And that’s really going to be key on [Sunday], that we can create some negative plays and get James Madison having to throw the football. That’s a real challenge and hard to do, we know that, but we’re gonna work hard to get ready for that.”
QB Tommy Schuster — The freshman quarterback is a Jerry Rice Award finalist and has thrown for 10 touchdowns to three interceptions in six games.
RB Otis Weah — The standout running back finished fifth in Walter Payton Award voting.
DB Evan Holm — The redshirt senior defensive back is North Dakota’s only remaining player from its 2016 playoff squad who actually played in that year’s home postseason game. Holm’s 10 pass breakups led the team in the regular season. He also recorded an interception vs. Southern Illinois.
QB Cole Johnson — Johnson is projected by HERO Sports to start Sunday night, but Moloney is ready with game experience. It’s an “either/or” situation on the depth chart at this position.
RB Percy Agyei-Obese — Hamilton stole the show in the VMI win, but Agyei-Obese is reliably good for 100-plus yards a contest. He will seek to wear down North Dakota off the Fighting Hawks’ long trip to Harrisonburg.
DL Mike Greene — The Buck Buchanan Award finalist and CAA Co-Defensive Player of the Year has excelled in his transition from the interior to defensive end this season.