By the time December hits, every college football team is beat up. What separates teams like JMU and NDSU from the rest of the subdivision is depth. The Dukes and the Bison didn't just have nicks and bruises.
FCS PLAYOFF CENTRAL
They've both had double-digit injuries that were season-ending or kept key players out of the lineup for an extended period of time. Yet even with a 2-deep depth chart that looked drastically different in August, the top two seeds dominated to reach the national championship game Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas.
There’s probably a good numbers of teams in the FCS that can go toe-to-toe with the Bison and Dukes if you line up the 1s against each other. But when the NDSU defensive line rotates all four players like a line change in hockey and there’s not a drop-off in production, the Bison begin to wear opponents down.
Or when JMU reassembles its offensive line and still runs for 257 yards in the semifinals, the Dukes' superiority to the rest of the FCS is shown.
The 2s and 3s for the national championship game teams is not only what makes them dominant second half teams, but also why they were able to blow out their semifinal opponents despite key injuries numbering in the teens.
Take a look at some of the key players that are out or have missed time this season:
- RB Cardon Johnson (Achilles) – leading rusher and looked to be having an all-American start to the season after rushing for 265 yards against FBS East Carolina, injured in the third game of the season
- K Tyler Gray (hip) – starting kicker through late October, made 9-11 FGs, 28-29 PATs
- RG Gerren Butler (ACL) – started the first four games
- OT Tyree Chavious (Achilles) – injured during the summer after starting three games at right tackle during the 2016 playoffs
- CB Charles Tutt – tore his ACL in preseason camp after playing in all 15 games last season and starting one
- TE Nick Carlton (knee) – started four of the team’s first six games
- LB Dimitri Holloway (foot) – played in just the season-opening game before getting injured, started nine games last year
- WR/RS John Miller (lower leg injury) – 2017 CAA Special Teams Player of the Year, a nagging injury has the team’s most experienced and explosive WR and returner in and out of the lineup, didn’t play in the quarterfinals or semifinals, hopeful to return in Frisco
- C A.J. Bolden (sprained ankle) – nagging ankle injury, didn’t play in the quarterfinals or semifinals
- TE Jonathan Kloosterman (illness, knee) – preseason all-American, missed regular season games due to suspension and illness, injured knee in quarterfinals but played in semifinals
- OL Jahee Jackson (unspecified) – HERO Sports FCS Sophomore All-American, Second Team All-CAA, went down in the quarterfinals and didn’t play in the semifinals
- LB Robert Carter Jr. (knee) – preseason All-CAA selection, played in only four regular season games, returned to play in all three playoff games
- CB Curtis Oliver (unspecified) – nickel corner, started nine games as a freshman and sophomore, left the quarterfinal game with an injury and didn’t play in the semifinals, hopeful to return in Frisco
North Dakota State
- DE Greg Menard (ACL) – preseason all-American, tore his ACL during summer practice after back-to-back all-American seasons
- RB Lance Dunn (hip) – preseason all-MVFC first team, led the FCS with 12 rushing touchdowns before exiting the seventh game of the season with a torn labrum in his hip, he’s running but is unlikely to play in Frisco
- RB Demaris Purifoy (ACL) – backup running back, rushed 18 times for 85 yards and one touchdown in season opener before suffering a season-ending knee injury late in the game
- RB Adam Cofield (knee) – backup running back, played in the first six games before getting injured, hopeful to play in Frisco
- RB Ty Brooks (shoulder) – change-of-pace running back who battled leg injuries early in the season, once healthy became the home-run hitter for NDSU averaging 9.2 yards per carry, separated his shoulder in the semifinals and is doubtful for Frisco
- QB Cole Davis (shoulder) – senior backup quarterback who missed six games after hurting his throwing shoulder, listed as backup and played in the fourth quarter of all three playoff games
- LT Dillon Radunz (ACL) – looked to be securing a spot as starting left tackle as a redshirt freshman before tearing his ACL in season opener
- CB Jalen Allison (knee) – 2016 All-MVFC Honorable Mention, two-year starter and NDSU’s shutdown corner, hurt his knee in the semifinals and is doubtful for Frisco
- CB Jaylaan Wimbush (knee) – two-year starter, hurt his knee in the semifinals and is doubtful for Frisco
- CB Dom Davis (groin) – backup cornerback, inserted during nickel defense, hasn’t played since Nov. 11 but is hopeful to play in Frisco
- LB Levi Jordheim (knee) – started seven games at outside linebacker before getting hurt on Nov. 4, hopeful to return in Frisco
- LB Dan Marlette (ACL) – started two games at inside linebacker for injured Nick DeLuca before tearing his ACL, head coach Chris Klieman said he was having an “all-conference season” as a starter
- LB Matt Plank (ankle) – started 10 games last year at middle linebacker for DeLuca, started two games this season, played in 11 and has missed three with a sprained ankle, was limited late in the season but should see reps in Frisco
No other teams in the FCS can suffer these type of injuries and still make a run. North Dakota, last year's Big Sky Conference champs with most of its team returning, and Villanova, a consistent playoff team, were decimated with injuries this season. Both finished below .500 and missed the playoffs.
Richmond is another example last year, bowing out of the playoffs early after a 2015 semifinal appearance.
That's why JMU and NDSU are in a tier by themselves. The Dukes offensive line has taken hit after hit. They are still able to run the ball (without their No. 1 running back Cardon Johnson mind you) like they want to. It's the same case for the Bison, who now have four of their top five running backs in August out with injuries and questionable to play in Frisco.
Last season, the Bison had key injuries on the defensive side during their 27-17 semifinal loss to JMU. But the Dukes had a handful of starters on the sidelines as well. JMU's backups were simply better than NDSU's backups, something Klieman pointed out before this season started.
The same could be the deciding factor next Saturday. While it's going to be a star-studded affair, there will be plenty of all-conference and all-American players watching on the sideline. Depth is what got these two teams here. And it could be the difference in the fourth quarter of an evenly-matched up.