We've had a few days to absorb what happened in Frisco, Texas in the FCS National Title game. Here are five "takes" by campus correspondent Daniel Steenkamer.
Trey Lance? No prior National Championship experience necessary, thanks.
Entering this heavyweight bout and rematch of the 2017 season’s national title tilt, Brian McLaughlin and I shared similar sentiments as to our rationale for picking James Madison to win a close one: The Dukes’ more experienced roster might have an edge over North Dakota State’s youth and could be the only differentiating factor between two squads that can otherwise go toe-to-toe with each other on a position-by-position basis.
Well, Jerry Rice Award and Walter Payton Award (“FCS double-crown?”) winner Trey Lance took that argument and, perhaps literally, ran right over it en route to the Bison’s astonishing eighth title in nine years. The redshirt freshman ran wild against a JMU defense that had hung its hat on rushing defense, single-handedly outrushing the entire Dukes team by accounting for 166 yards on the ground to James Madison’s team total of 161 yards. The ABC commentators, when they were not incessantly previewing Monday night’s FBS championship during game action and in breaks in the action, raved about Lance’s feel in the pocket and his proverbial “eyes in the back of the head” to elude JMU pressure and make plays when none through the air were available. The poise shown by this redshirt freshman was remarkable and telling of the impact of former NDSU starter Easton Stick’s tutelage in Lance’s true-freshman year.
NDSU is well-positioned to continue its historic run into the 2020s.
Although North Dakota State’s dominance is consistent with that of former FCS programs that have moved up, such as Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, the consensus seems to be that the Bison are unwilling to jump to the FBS to join just any conference. Especially when its location is taken into consideration, NDSU has no reason to be indiscriminate about fielding theoretical FBS conference invitations. Such a move up has to make sense financially (expenses-wise, including travel costs), and there are numerous additional investments into a program that must be made for it to even be eligible for FBS competition, most notably the expansion of football scholarships.
With NDSU indisputably sticking in the FCS for the foreseeable future, the bar for the rest of the country has risen (again). The Bison are extremely well-positioned to continue their march of championships into the 2020s, simply judging by the portion of their 2019 roster that is set to return for the 2020 campaign (and beyond).
Hats off to James Madison’s senior class, one of the winningest groups in Dukes history.
On the whole, James Madison did not play its best game Saturday, yet it still had a chance to knot the score late and send things to overtime. That truth says a lot about the quality of the Dukes’ upperclassmen and senior leadership. With the 2019 seniors on the squad, JMU advanced to three National Championships, winning one (in 2016) and falling by one possession to the greatest dynasty that the sport has seen on the other two occasions. Those who were fifth-year seniors in 2019 played under three head coaches (Everett Withers, Mike Houston, and Curt Cignetti). In short, although their careers did not end in the desired manner, James Madison’s seniors deserve a hearty salute, as they have left their mark in Harrisonburg (and Frisco).
North Dakota State’s aggressive approach paid off in a big way.
NDSU opened the second and fourth quarters with long touchdown runs that helped spell the difference in the ballgame. On the first play of the second period, Phoenix Sproles got loose on a fake reverse for a 38-yard touchdown trot that even faked out ABC’s cameras. Lance opened the final quarter with a bang by striking yet again with his legs on a 44-yard touchdown scamper that erased 3rd-and-23. That play in particular was an especially brutal blow to JMU, as it made the score 28-13 Bison with 14:50 to play. The moment was quite possibly reminiscent of Stick’s game-finishing touchdown gallop against Eastern Washington in the National Championship a year ago.
NDSU was unrelenting in its attack all day, and that was particularly evident in its second-quarter decision to employ a fake field goal that turned into a 20-yard touchdown run by James Hendricks. The gutsy move gave the Bison their first two-possession lead of the afternoon. Hendricks wasn’t done, either, as he would go on to clinch North Dakota State’s victory by intercepting Ben DiNucci’s fateful pass at the goal-line with seconds to play in regulation.
Questionable clock management on the part of Curt Cignetti and his staff down the stretch?
Yes, it is easy to second-guess the coaching decisions of the losing team in hindsight. Additionally, Curt Cignetti is deserving of all sorts of credit for guiding his team to a national title appearance in his first season at the helm in the Shenandoah Valley. However, even if James Madison had come away with a spectacular comeback win, I might still be scratching my head at Cignetti’s late-game clock management.
In my eyes, it is likely somewhat bothersome if you’re a JMU fan that the Dukes left a timeout on the table during the final seconds. After Riley Stapleton’s clutch 22-yard reception that brought James Madison to the North Dakota State 17 with 0:38 remaining, the Dukes allowed 16-17 seconds to drip off the clock upon the game clock restarting with the placement of the chains. JMU had two timeouts to work with at that point and using one, since it was unable to get a play off right after getting on top of the ball at the 17, would have been warranted. Instead, Madison went on to go nearly two minutes between taking timeouts, burning one earlier in the drive (with 1:58 to play) and finally taking another with 8 seconds on the board. Had more time been preserved after Stapleton’s catch, the Dukes might have had more flexibility in the late-game playcalling, which could even have prevented DiNucci’s unfortunate final pass. Going without taking the “use it or lose it” timeout might stick with James Madison over the spring and summer.
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