The FCS playoffs are as good a time as any for a player to have a breakout performance, and the James Madison Dukes have received a huge boost in the postseason run from not one, but two players who are putting up huge numbers on offense as the playoffs wear on.
Wide receiver Riley Stapleton and running back Marcus Marshall combined for 723 yards and six total touchdowns in the regular season. So far in the playoffs — in just three games — the duo has totaled 670 combined yards and 7 total touchdowns.
Stapleton caught 19 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season — in three playoff games he has 16 catches for 321 yards and three touchdowns, including a career-high 189-yard game (with a score) against Weber State. The FCS Playoffs quarterfinals performance was a JMU postseason receiving record.
His two touchdowns in the first half of the semifinal matchup against SDSU were key to the Dukes jumping out to a lead after the defense tormented the Jackrabbits early in the contest.
Marshall has written a similar story for James Madison. After rushing for 474 yards in the regular season and tacking on a few more yards through the air, the first-year Duke exploded in the playoffs, rushing for 346 yards in three games and scoring four post-season touchdowns.
The bulk of that production came in the last two matchups, as after a five-carry, 15-yard performance in the Dukes' playoff opener against Stony Brook, Marshall — like his teammate, Stapleton — exploded for a 128-yard, two-touchdown showing against Weber State and a 203-yard, two-touchdown game against SDSU, including a pair of 65-plus yard runs against the Jackrabbits.
All of this production came after Marshall put up just one 100-yard game in the regular season (a 135-yard showing against Maine) and Stapleton maxed out in the regular season with a 64-yard, two-touchdown game against East Tennessee.
So what led to the breakout games?
As far as JMU head coach Mike Houston sees it, it was just a matter of time.
"I think we had these expectations from the summer coming into fall," Houston told HERO Sports in a teleconference heading into National Championship week. "We had expected both of them to be playmakers for us on the offensive side of the football. For one reason or another, whether it's injury or getting acclimated to the system or whatever, they didn't make quite the impact early in the year that they have late in the year."
"But I think what you're seeing now is two very talented athletes that have confidence in themselves, and their teammates have confidence in that they are going out there, they're executing at a very high level and playing within our system."
His players echo a similar sentiment.
Marshall, a legacy at JMU whose father, Warren Marshall, is a member of the James Madison Athletics Hall of Fame and the school's all-time leading rusher, transferred to JMU this year after attending Georgia Tech and rushing for over 1,200 yards in two seasons as a Yellow Jacket.
His decision to transfer may not have been easy, but finding his ultimate destination was:
"I was looking for a school to go to where it felt like I was going to fit in not only into the scheme, but I really wanted to feel like I belonged in that locker room," Marshall told HERO Sports Thursday. "When I took my visit they treated me like I had been here a year, so it felt like home to me. Both my parents went to school here, obviously I fit into the football scheme so it just all-around felt right.”
Marshall, who grew up with an eye on JMU and had visited the campus on multiple occasions because of his parents' connection, felt right at home at James Madison.
Once he arrived on campus and became a member of the JMU football program, he knew he made the right choice to join the loaded backfield that already included Cardon Johnson, Trai Sharp and Taylor Woods.
"Having so many good backs, coming in, that’s something I knew, and I was actually looking forward to the opportunity to share a room with so much talent, it’s actually beneficial," Marshall said. "You stay fresh and you know you’ve always got someone in the game who’s fresh.”
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That backfield depth was necessary after Johnson — JMU's leading rusher through mid-season — went down with an injury early. As the year wore on, Marshall eventually got his shot and made the most of it, culminating in the last two playoff game performances of 331 total rushing yards and four scores.
As his teammate and fellow playoff breakout player Stapleton said, it was only a matter of time before a guy like Marshall made a big impact considering his talent and the preparation he brings to the table.
“He transferred in and I’m sure most transfers, I’ve never done it, but most transfers say it’s a very difficult process," Stapleton told HERO Sports. "You’ve got to learn a new offense, you’ve got to learn a new culture and style of play. He’s stuck to the program, stuck to what he needed to do and doing the right things, and I think that’s why someone as talented as him has exploded in the playoffs and why he’s going to have a great game in the National Championship, too.”
Stapleton is right in that "playoff explosion" boat. After a freshman year limited to special teams, the 6-foot-5, 218-pound wide receiver has found a place as one of the most important playmakers of this year's FCS Playoffs. JMU would likely not be in the championship game without Stapleton's heroics against Weber State, as his career-high eight-catch, 183-yard showing against the Wildcats — including his game-tying, 4th-quarter, 40-yard TD catch — helped keep the Dukes alive in the post-season.
Marshall, who's proven to be a post-season playmaker in his own right, said Stapleton's emergence was no surprise.
“The way Riley works, I don’t think it shocks anybody that he’s having this success," Marshall told HERO Sports. "He’s one of the hardest workers on the team, he definitely deserves it.”
Stapleton, meanwhile, downplayed his breakout, saying he's simply doing what is asked of him and taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves.
“Every week is a new week, and our coach prides in telling us this is the biggest game of the year because it’s the only game this week," he told HERO Sports. "My preparation, I’ve tried to be as laser-focused as I can be since I’ve gotten here. I think as I’ve gotten older and more experienced it’s been more film-oriented into what I need to do with the certain looks I get. All that leading up to the National Championship, it pays off this weekend."
It's Stapleton's second year in Frisco, and his role on the team has skyrocketed when you compare it to last year's championship squad. Stapleton is proud of the role he served on the title-winning team from a year ago, but he knows his position today opens the door for a bigger opportunity for his team.
“I have a bigger role this year, but a role is a role. Last year I was mostly on special teams and I take pride in what I did last year, but not much has changed," he said. "Still worked just as hard, just trying to seize this opportunity."
Both Marshall and Stapleton know NDSU is not an opponent to be taken lightly. But both also know as long as they do what they've done this season — and especially this post-season — they'll put themselves in a position to be successful.
“In a simple way, we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing," Marshall said. "Obviously we’ve been winning and we know how to win, I think it just comes down to preparing the same way we have been for every other game.”
Time will tell if the Dukes and their breakout players on the offensive side of the ball will have enough to take down an NDSU team looking for its sixth FCS Championship in seven years. But one thing is for sure — no one has truly slowed down this duo in the playoffs, and if North Dakota State wants that sixth championship, these two threats will need to be neutralized.
NEXT: FCS Championship Mailbag