The James Madison Dukes and North Dakota State Bison are set for the FCS rematch of the year this weekend. But, unlike last year’s playoff meeting between the two, this year the matchup will determine the national champion.
With seven national championships between them, these two teams know what it takes to bring home the title.
James Madison is familiar with this situation. Last year, the Dukes made the FCS playoff tournament as the fourth seed and cruised through their first two games. In its semifinal contest, JMU faced off with North Dakota State and pulled off the upset of the year.
Quarterback Bryan Schor had an efficient passing day, and coupled with a monstrous day on the ground from running back Khalid Abdullah, the Dukes had enough to stave off the Bison.
It was comparatively easy sledding from there for James Madison, which clinched its second national title last January by beating Youngstown State 28-14.
On the flip side, North Dakota State is facing somewhat unfamiliar territory this year. Before falling in the semifinal last year, NDSU had reached five straight title games from 2011-15, winning each one. Now, for the first time since that 2011 campaign, the Bison will not defend the national title in Frisco, Texas.
The national championship game this year seemed inevitable from the start of the season. James Madison ran the table through the regular season, while North Dakota State’s lone blemish came on Nov. 4 against archrival South Dakota State.
Saturday’s showdown in Frisco will likely be a low-scoring affair. Both programs made their name this season on the back of relentless defenses.
In 14 games, including the playoffs, James Madison has allowed just 10.7 points per on the year. North Dakota State’s defense has been stout in its own right, giving up just 11.5 points per game.
Those numbers alone don’t fully describe the sheer dominance of these respective units, either. Each team has only game up more than 16 points once all season.
While both teams are strong against the pass, their respective run defenses have stifled almost all comers. James Madison allows just 2.6 yards per rushing attempt, while North Dakota State also holds its opponents under three yards per carry, at 2.9 per attempt.
As good as the defenses are, both teams have playmakers offensively too. Specifically, the quarterback rematch will pit together two of the nation’s best, or at least most efficient, passers. Both players are among the top 20 nationally in passer efficiency rating.
Schor, with his 149.9 rating, has been the rock for James Madison behind center. Despite throwing 12 interceptions on the year, Schor has come up with big plays all season long. Notably, he led the Dukes down the field on a game-winning drive, capped by a field goal as time expired, in their quarterfinal win over Weber State. His numbers weren’t flashy, but they were effective enough.
— FCS Football (@FCS_STATS) December 28, 2017
Easton Stick, the junior quarterback for North Dakota State, has put up gaudy numbers this season. He’s the second-highest rated passer in the nation with a 173.7 efficiency rating, while throwing for 9.7 yards per attempt. Stick’s been smart with the ball as well; he’s only thrown eight interceptions this year.
For Stick, a strong performance could help shake a poor performance from his game against JMU last year. In last season’s semifinal loss, he was just 19/38 passing for 216 yards with no touchdowns.
"Physically, he's a really strong player. He's going to lower his shoulder and try to run over you. He does a great job in play action. He doesn't turn it over a lot. He's the key that makes their offense operate."
-Houston on NDSU QB Easton Stick
— JMU Football (@JMUFootball) January 2, 2018
Both offenses have found plenty of success running the ball this season too. NDSU has ridden junior running back Bruce Anderson on the ground this year, to the tune of 1,186 yards and 11 touchdowns.
James Madison, on the other hand, has gained most of its ground yardage thanks to a duo of backs. Juniors Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp have both run for over 700 yards this season and have combined for 14 rushing touchdowns.
After 14 games apiece, it’s easy to argue that James Madison and North Dakota State are the two best teams, or at least most deserving, in the FCS. There will be two elite defenses on display this Saturday, along with one team looking defend its national title and one looking for revenge.
It’s hard to argue that there could be a more fitting matchup with the national championship on the line.