Dukes ready to face five-time defending champ Bison in FCS semis

HARRISONBURG — James Madison University is facing its biggest challenge of the season today as it takes on five-time defending Football Championship Subdivision champion North Dakota State on the road.

The fourth-seeded Dukes will be underdogs and will try to do something no one has ever done — beat North Dakota State at the Fargodome in a playoff game. The Bison are 18-0 at home in the playoffs.

The odds may be against them, but the Dukes aren’t ready for their season to come to an end just yet.

“They’re five-time reigning champions. So all hats off and kudos to them,” JMU senior running back Khalid Abdullah said after practice Monday. “But at the end of the day we still got to go out there and we don’t play this game to lose. We put our pants on the same way they do. It is definitely exciting. It’s definitely exciting to play in the dome. It’s a lot of things to look forward to, but at the end of the day we have to execute on all cylinders and be able to do the things that we do well.”

North Dakota State is averaging 30.1 points per game. The Bison like to run the ball and are averaging 249.2 rushing yards per contest.

Sophomore Lance Dunn leads the rushing attack for the Bison with 940 yards on 156 carries and six touchdowns. Senior King Frazier has 835 yards on 171 carries and 10 scores, while sophomore quarterback Easton Stick has 664 yards on 104 carries and seven touchdowns.

Stick has also thrown for 2,115 yards on 150-for-250 passing. He has 19 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. Sophomore wide receiver Darrius Shepherd has 41 receptions for 600 yards and five touchdowns for the Bison.

“Offensively, big strong physical offensive front. They have running backs that play downhill,” JMU head coach Mike Houston said. “Everything in their run game is downhill. It’s very in your face, kind of old-school offense. East Stick is a dual-threat guy, runs very, very well. Throws it really well, a good pocket passer. He does a great job executing the offense. I think the receivers do a great job of blocking. They got some guys out there that are playmakers as well, but the big thing is they’re going to give great effort on every snap.”

Houston said the fullbacks and tight ends are also important as they do a great job blocking as well.

In an FCS quarterfinal win against South Dakota State, the Bison had a 20-play, 12-minute drive in the second quarter that put them in the lead for good.

JMU quarterback Bryan Schor said he knows the Dukes will have to be efficient on offense.

“I think when a team is controlling the ball like that it makes each possession more important,” Schor said. “Each possession you get you have to cherish it, and you have to make it really worth it because a lot of times you’re not going to get more than 10 a game. In games like this you might get even less than that.”

The Bison, coached by Chris Klieman, are allowing only 15.8 points per game.

Senior linebacker M.J. Stimpf leads the way for the Bison on defense with 79 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two interceptions. Sophomore safety Robbie Grimsley has 76 tackles, one sack and four interceptions. Defensive lineman Greg Menard has 10.5 sacks and has forced two fumbles this season.

“They’re a disciplined, tough, physical, hard-nosed defense,” Houston said. “They do a good job playing within the scheme, doing their job. A very similar scheme to what we run. I think their kids play very, very hard. I think they play with an edge. They do a good job of running to the football and playing together.”

Both teams are solid on special teams. JMU’s Rashard Davis leads the FCS with four punt returns for a touchdown. North Dakota State hasn’t allowed a punt return yard all season, and only three punts have been returned all season.

One of JMU’s concerns is playing in the Fargodome, which is considered to be one of the noisiest stadiums in college football. Houston said they were playing loud music in practice this week, to try and help the players get used to playing through noise.

On top of playing in the FCS semifinals, JMU’s players are also dealing with exam week at JMU.

“You really just have to compartmentalize,” Schor said. “We have our grades and I do care a lot about that. I’m going to have to focus on my grades. But when I come out to practice each day or when I’m watching film, I’m going to be 100 percent focused on North Dakota State and what our challenges are this week.”

The Dukes are coming off an impressive 65-7 victory over Sam Houston State in the FCS quarterfinals.

JMU now has the top scoring offense in the country, averaging 49.6 points per game.

Schor won the Bill Dudley Award on Monday, which is given to the top Division I player in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Schor has thrown for 2,648 yards and has 24 passing touchdowns. He also has rushed for 534 yards and 10 scores.

Linebackers Brandon Hereford and Gage Steele lead the way on defense for the Dukes with 96 and 87 tackles, respectively.

JMU senior wide receiver and punt returner Rashard Davis had his fourth punt return for a touchdown last week against Sam Houston State.

Schor said that even though the Dukes are in the semifinals, he’s not ready to think about what they’ve accomplished so far.

“I think when you start thinking about where you are and what you’re doing that’s kind of starting to end your story,” Schor said. “I want to talk about all this in a couple more months. I don’t think we’re done yet. I think we’re still writing our story and I think I want to go out there and just kind of focus on the moment.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com