FRISCO, Texas – The way James Madison coach Mike Houston sees it, North Dakota State’s FCS dominance isn’t quite over, even though his Dukes ended the Bison’s five-year title run in the semifinals last season.
Houston speaks from experience with his team a win from an undefeated season as the defending champion. The final opponent in the pursuit of a second straight crown: North Dakota State on Saturday in the FCS championship game.
“I don’t know that you’ll ever see that again,” Houston said. “It’s almost an absurd achievement. And the fact that they made it to the semifinals last year, and they’re back in the finals this year, I mean really you’re talking about a seven-year run where there’s just complete dominance week in and week out.”
James Madison (14-0) ended North Dakota State’s 22-game postseason winning streak in Fargo last season, and survived a 31-28 scare in the quarterfinals against Weber State this season.
The Bison (13-1) have cruised by an average margin of 36 points in the playoffs, perhaps with their eyes on a rematch.
“Not at first. I kind of put it behind me,” said running back Bruce Anderson, who has taken the lead role with an injury to Lance Dunn. “But as we got closer, especially after we beat Sam Houston, I was looking forward to playing James Madison.”
It’s a rematch of experienced quarterbacks as well, with James Madison senior Bryan Schor trying to extend the second-longest FCS winning streak, currently at 26 games.
The longest FCS winning streak? Why, North Dakota State, of course – a 33-win run from 2012-14 that included one undefeated season.
“To consistently come back here, now that we’ve done it two years now, is really hard,” said Schor, who threw for three touchdowns in last season’s win over the Bison. “And they’ve done it for, what, six now? It’s pretty incredible what they’ve done.”
Easton Stick is starting his first title game for North Dakota State as a junior but has plenty of postseason experience, including 2015 when he won three playoff games before Carson Wentz returned from injury. Wentz was the No. 2 overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles four months later.
Stick couldn’t beat James Madison with his arm when the Dukes slowed North Dakota State’s run-first offense last season. But he has 10 TD passes in three playoff games with three more touchdowns on the ground this season.
“I think to get to this stage you have to have a quarterback that’s a winner, that’s a playmaker, that the moment’s not too big for them,” Bison coach Chris Klieman said. “That’s no question, both quarterbacks in this game are like that.”
Story lines for the third meeting between these teams, the previous two in the playoffs with one win apiece:
James Madison leads the nation in scoring defense, and North Dakota State is second. The Bison are first in total defense, the Dukes third. Schor says that expectation of a defensive struggle won’t change his mentality. “I think you can get caught up in a paradox there of `Do I be aggressive here?’ and you start to question yourself,” said Schor, who has accounted for 21 touchdowns with four interceptions in eight career playoff games. “As a quarterback, you’ve just got to play the game.”
Speaking of turnovers
The Dukes forced 10 turnovers in a 51-16 win over South Dakota State in the semifinals. They have an FCS-leading 43 takeaways, including 31 interceptions. “Once the first one comes, we know that could be the game-changer and we want to capitalize as many times as we can,” said safety Jordan Brown, who has nine interceptions.
Carson Wentz’s younger brother, Connor Wentz, is a senior tight end for the Bison. He has five touchdowns receiving, second on the team, on just 12 catches. His isn’t sure if his older brother will attend the game. Carson Wentz is out of the season with a knee injury, and the top-seeded Eagles are on their bye before the NFC divisional playoffs.
North Dakota State linebacker Nick DeLuca missed last year’s loss with a shoulder injury. The Senior Bowl invitee had three sacks, a forced fumble and an interception in the first two playoff games. “He’s a next-level player that is finally 100 percent healthy, which he was through the playoff run,” Klieman said.
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