HARRISONBURG — James Madison University’s football team is coming off its toughest challenge of the season and today the Dukes will face an even bigger one.
The Dukes host South Dakota State University in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals at 4:30 p.m., today. The Jackrabbits have one of the top-scoring offenses in the country.
“When you get down to this point in the playoffs there are no bad teams out there,” JMU head football coach Mike Houston said. “Every team left is obviously capable of wining the national championship. When you look at the semifinal match-ups with us and South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Sam Houston State on the other side, you have probably the top four teams in the country this year. So the tournament system does work and we’re excited about the match-up.”
The Jackrabbits (11-2) are led by 6-foot-4 senior tight end Dallas Goodert, who Houston said is projected to be a National Football League first-round draft pick next year. Goodert has 67 catches for 1,068 yards and six touchdowns. Houston said Goodert is probably the best offensive player the Dukes have faced all season.
South Dakota State 6-foot-4 senior wide receiver Jake Wieneke leads the FCS with 15 receiving touchdowns. Wieneke has 58 receptions for 860 yards. Houston said Wieneke is projected to be a fourth-round NFL draft pick next year.
Jackrabbits’ quarterback Taryn Christion, a junior, has thrown for 3,281 yards and 33 touchdowns. He also has 515 rushing yards on 103 rushes and nine touchdowns.
“It’s not like those are the only three players they have, but those three players are difference makers,” Houston said. “Those are top end in the country, at this level, playmakers on offense.”
South Dakota State running back Brady Mengarelli has 783 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
The Jackrabbits are averaging 38.8 points and 444.2 yards per game.
Houston said all the size the Jackrabbits have at tight end and wide receiver will make it very difficult for JMU’s secondary.
“You’ll see us do some different things in coverage this week,” Houston said. “And we’ve done a good job of playing a lot of multiple coverages in situations throughout the year, where we’ve mixed man and zone and some hybrid stuff. So I think you’ll see us use just a variety of things this week just to try to slow them down. But certainly it’s going to be the biggest challenge we’ve had.”
The Jackrabbits are pretty solid on defense as well. They are allowing just 21.8 points per game.
South Dakota State linebacker Christian Rozeboom has led the way this season with 118 tackles, one interception and one sack.
“He’s very active, has a tremendous motor,” Houston said of Rozeboom. “He has good size, very instinctive, but he runs very well. But he kind of has the mentality of a (former JMU linebacker) Gage Steele kind of player — hard-nosed player. But certainly he’s kind of their inspirational heart-and-soul kind of leader of that unit. And they have a lot of good players around him.”
The Jackrabbits also have a solid special teams unit, led by kicker Chase Vinatieri, whose father, Adam, is a kicker for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. Adam Vinatieri, 44, is the oldest active player in the NFL.
The Dukes (13-0) are coming off an emotional win over Weber State University in the FCS semifinals. JMU scored 11 points in the final three minutes to pull out a last-second victory.
JMU senior quarterback Bryan Schor became JMU’s all-time passing leader during the win last week. He has thrown for 2,871 yards and 24 touchdowns. Junior running backs Trai Sharp and Marcus Marshall have combined to run for 1,336 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
The defense has been led by redshirt senior safety Jordan Brown and junior cornerback Rashad Robinson. They are tied for the FCS lead with seven interceptions each.
The Jackrabbits, who are coached by John Stiegelmeier, are in the Missouri Valley Conference, along with North Dakota State.
JMU redshirt senior linebacker Kyre Hawkins said it’s an honor for the Dukes to represent the Colonial Athletic Conference in the postseason.
“They always talk about our conference and North Dakota State’s conference being the top conferences in the country,” Hawkins said. “So it’s a great feeling being out there and being able to support our conference and being able to support our community.”
The FCS semifinal winners will play each other in the FCS national championship game on Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas.
Win or lose, today’s game will be the last at Bridgeforth Stadium for JMU’s 23 seniors.
“I love playing here. I love playing in front of our crowd,” Hawkins said. “I love when they’re so loud and everything. It feels like you’re shaking out here. It’s an exciting feeling— it’s electric. And I’ve had a great time playing in front of these guys. So hopefully we can make it one more time to Frisco so we can see all purple in Texas as well.”