HARRISONBURG — Two powerhouse programs collide today when James Madison University and North Dakota State University play for the Football Championship Subdivision title in Frisco, Texas.
The two teams will face off at noon today, in a game that can be seen on ESPN2. JMU head football coach Mike Houston said it’s not a big surprise that it’s JMU and North Dakota State are in the final.
“I think it’s the match-up that everybody early in the year, preseason, kind of penciled in as kind of the two teams that had the best shot to get there,” Houston said. “But certainly there’s been a lot we’ve both had to go through and achieve and overcome to get to this point. But I think that says a lot about the depth of both programs and the players that we have in those programs.
“It’s a situation where you have the top two teams in the country matching up (today) in Frisco, Texas.”
The reigning FCS champion Dukes have won 26 straight games. The Bison won five straight FCS titles, until losing to JMU, 27-17, in last year’s FCS semifinals. North Dakota State has a record of 96-8 over the last six seasons.
The two teams have much in common, including having to overcome injuries throughout the year.
JMU senior running back Cardon Johnson, who is planning to take a medical redshirt and return next season, suffered a season-ending injury in the third game of the year.
North Dakota State junior running back Lance Dunn was injured in the seventh game of the year and has not returned.
The Dukes have been led by juniors Marcus Marshall (820 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns) and Trai Sharp (739 yards and four scores) in Johnson’s absence, while junior Bruce Anderson (1,186 yards and 11 TD’s) has led the way for the Bison since Dunn’s injury.
As a team, the Bison have rushed for 3,949 yards and 47 touchdowns.
North Dakota State head football coach Chris Klieman said that stopping JMU’s running game will be a challenge.
“We’ve got to do a great job of being gap sound,” Klieman said. “They did a good job of creating some openings against South Dakota State (in the FCS semifinals), and South Dakota State missed some fits. We can’t miss our fits. They have a tremendous running game. They do some zone stuff, do some gap scheme stuff. …We have to do a great job of tackling too. It’s something that we’ve emphasized and need to do a great job of.”
Houston said that both teams are going to try to run the ball on offense and defensively try to stop the run game.
He said the key to North Dakota State’s offense is their offensive line.
“I think that they’re big, they’re physical they’re well-coached,” Houston said of the offensive line. “They play with an attitude and an edge. They do what they do. They really come off the football and get after you.”
Houston said the Bison have four solid tight ends who can all catch the ball and block. Connor Wentz, who is the cousin of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, leads the Bison tight ends with 12 catches for 186 yards and five scores. JMU is led at tight end by senior Jonathan Kloosterman (seven catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns).
Both JMU and North Dakota State have strong leadership at the quarterback position.
North Dakota State junior quarterback Easton Stick has thrown for 2,336 yards and 27 touchdowns. He has also rushed for 628 yards and 12 scores.
Houston said Stick has improved since the Dukes saw him last year and isn’t afraid of playing on the big stage. Houston said that one of the things that makes Stick tough to stop is his size.
“Physically he’s a big, strong player,” Houston said. “Not only does he throw the ball well, he’s a very dangerous threat running the ball. He’s not a finesse running guy. He’s going to lower his shoulder and try to run over you. And he’s a very physical ball carrier.”
JMU quarterback Bryan Schor has thrown for 3,074 yards and 26 touchdowns. He has also rushed for 303 yards and seven scores.
Both teams also have a solid group of wide receivers. North Dakota State is led by senior R.J. Urzendowski (35 catches for 589 yards and eight touchdowns) and junior Darrius Shepherd (35 receptions for 485 yards). JMU is led by redshirt senior Terrence Alls with 53 catches for 681 yards and two touchdowns and sophomore Riley Stapleton with 35 receptions for 508 yards and five touchdowns.
The Dukes and Bison have the top two-ranked defenses in the country. North Dakota State is allowing just 11.5 points per game, while JMU is giving up 10.7 points per game.
“Defensively, without a doubt, you’re going to see the best two defenses in FCS,” Klieman said. “So that always worries you is how can we dent these guys and how can we find ways to keep drives alive and stay on the field and keep their offense on the sideline. When you have two dominant defenses, as shown that both teams are, it’s going to come down to who can make some of those plays and who can stay on the field and try to get some drives going.”
North Dakota State redshirt freshman Jabril Cox (72 tackles, four sacks and one interception) and senior Nick DeLuca (70 tackles, 5.5 sacks and one interception) lead North Dakota State’s defense.
Houston said North Dakota State’s defense will be a huge test for his offense.
“They’re big and physical up front on defense. They really get after you,” Houston said. “The safeties are extremely aggressive. (3) is one of the best safeties we’ve seen since I’ve been here. And he’s a really special player. So I think we’re going to have to do a good job of matching their physicality. We’re going to have to do a tremendous job up front of really trying to win the point of contact.”
JMU redshirt senior linebacker Kyre Hawkins leads the team with 101 tackles and seven sacks. JMU redshirt senior defensive lineman Andrew Ankrah has 54 tackles and a team-best 8.5 sacks.
One of the big strengths all season for JMU’s defense has been the play of the secondary. JMU leads the FCS with 31 interceptions. JMU redshirt senior safety Jordan Brown leads the FCS with nine interceptions.
Both JMU and North Dakota State have a strong fan base, and Houston said he expects a great atmosphere for the game.
Houston said it should be a game that will be fun to watch.
“This game (today), what’s going to make it so good is both teams have the same mindset,” Houston said. “Both teams are very, very physical. Both teams are going to come right at you. Both teams have players that not only have ability, but they are tough and hard-nosed players. And so it’s going to be one of those games that’s probably going to be a lot of fun to watch in the stands. One that I may age five years just in three hours (today), but you have two teams that play the game the way I think it’s supposed to be played.”