The 2019 FCS Playoffs are here, and we've got game-by-game wrap-ups.
Weber State 14
Time/Date: January 11, 12 p.m. ET | TV: ABC
Offensive Player of the Game: Riley Stapleton, WR, James Madison | 9 receptions for 162 yards and 2 touchdowns
Defensive Player of the Game: Rashad Robinson, CB, James Madison | team-leading 5 total tackles, 2 pass break-ups
OTHER STAT STANDOUTS:
Ben DiNucci, QB, James Madison | 19-26 passing for 255 yards and 2 touchdowns, 13 carries for team-leading 62 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 4.8 yards per carry
Brandon Polk, WR, James Madison | 5 receptions for 52 yards, 2 kickoff returns for 85 yards (141 all-purpose yards)
Wayne Davis, S, James Madison | 4 total tackles, 1 tackle-for-loss, 1 pass break-up
Conner Mortensen, LB, Weber State | game-high 13 total tackles
Ty MacPherson, WR, Weber State | 5 receptions for team-leading 83 yards and 1 touchdown
James Madison’s vaunted defense fed off of the boisterous 10,487 attendees who braved the cold at Bridgeforth Stadium and did not miss a beat after its quarterfinal shutout of Northern Iowa. The Dukes forced a three-and-out on each of Weber State’s first three possessions, more than rewarding the team’s decision to defer after winning the coin toss. “We got off to such a slow start that the damage was done in the first quarter,” Wildcats head coach Jay Hill lamented. “You can’t go down 17-0 to these guys in this stadium and think that that’s any recipe for success.” JMU never looked back after controlling the ball for 11:54 of the first quarter, going on to outgain Weber State 467-256 in yards of total offense and piling up 212 net rushing yards to WSU’s 70.
Weber State was limited to just 2 of 10 on third-down conversions and had a field goal blocked by James Madison redshirt junior defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa in the early stages of the fourth quarter to snuff out an elusive scoring opportunity. In the end, the Dukes left little doubt with their convincing path to victory, which allowed the folks at Bridgeforth Stadium to exhaust their Texas-themed playlist to get the crowd amped for the prospect of confirming plans for Frisco. James Madison players rushed to the stands soon after the final horn to celebrate with the Marching Royal Dukes and other students and the obligatory cowboy hat was donned by Rashad Robinson. It was a fitting end to a night that sent JMU to its third national championship appearance in four years and a Frisco rematch with defending champion and top-seeded North Dakota State. .
THE TURNING POINT
After James Madison’s defense extended its remarkable FCS playoff streak of shutout quarters in the first period of Saturday’s semifinal game against Weber State by helping JMU to a 10-0 lead by the end of the opening quarter, the Wildcats trimmed what became a 17-0 deficit to 17-7 with 1:23 to play in the second quarter by way of Kevin Smith’s 2-yard outside run on a toss play, which was officially scored as a touchdown pass by quarterback Jake Constantine. Weber’s newfound momentum was short-lived, however, as JMU wide receiver Brandon Polk flashed his Power-5-caliber speed on the ensuing kickoff, racing 60 yards from the Madison 4-yard-line to the WSU 36 and victimizing a traditionally stingy Weber State special teams unit in the process. James Madison would drive from the 36 into the Wildcat red zone, reaching the Weber State 14-yard-line before quite uncharacteristically going in reverse. The Dukes committed two delay-of-game penalties and one holding call in their next four plays after hitting the 14 to be pushed back to Weber’s 34-yard-line, just two yards ahead of their starting field position that came courtesy of Polk.
Facing the resulting 4th-and-30 from the 34 with 4 seconds to go in the first half, JMU sent out kicker Ethan Ratke and the rest of the special teamers to attempt a long field goal of over 50 yards. Ratke’s try at a possible career-long kick fell well short in the end zone, but Weber State coach Jay Hill had called a timeout before the snap in an effort to ice Ratke, who famously ended WSU’s season two years ago with a game-winning field goal in an instant-classic quarterfinal at Bridgeforth Stadium. Having seen Ratke’s attempt come up short, the Dukes elected to use the final seconds of the first half to take a deep shot at the end zone, and it paid off in the form of Riley Stapleton’s 34-yard Hail Mary touchdown reception. The catch put JMU back in control at intermission by increasing the home team’s lead to 24-7 and by snatching the semblance of energy mustered by Weber State right back. The play was emblematic of Stapleton’s overall dominance on the night, as he would haul in nine passes for well over 150 yards and find paydirt twice in a showing reminiscent of his standout performance in the aforementioned prior playoff meeting between Weber and Madison. .
"“I think that’s just a testament to the guys around me. It makes my job really easy when guys are running wide open and all I gotta do is throw it up to Riley, he makes a play. It’s kind of been Polk these last few weeks, but we needed Riley tonight. Run game got going late; guys up front did a heck of a job. I think, as a defensive coordinator, it’s probably pretty hard to try to game plan for us. We’ve got so many weapons, so many guys that can make plays, so we’re gonna need that on January 11th.” — Dukes QB Ben DiNucci on the versatility of James Madison’s offense
PREVIEW OF NEXT GAME
New head coaches are among the fresh faces that headline the next installment of “Bison versus Dukes” deep in the FCS playoffs. Matt Entz of North Dakota State and JMU’s Curt Cignetti are two first-year head coaches who have steered their clubs to Frisco, just where they were widely projected to advance. However, there is a lot to be said for coaching that “doesn’t get in the way” of the talent and tradition in place. Entz and Cignetti have even raised the play of their elite teams heading into what should be another hotly contested national title game.
Trey Lance and Ben DiNucci will form a highly anticipated quarterback matchup, while both teams’ defenses have been among, if not the two premier, heavyweights of the FCS this season. The Missouri Valley and CAA winners passed their tests against the Big Sky’s semifinalists with flying colors and will now push each other to the limit with the national championship on the line.
OTHER SEMIS COVERAGE
Listen to the latest episodes of B-Mac and Herd's FCS Podcast, which can be found on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Spotify, iHeart, Stitcher and Spreaker.