By the time JMU football steps onto the field next Saturday for the FCS National Championship game, it’ll have been over 735 days since the Dukes left Toyota Stadium, falling just short of back-to-back FCS titles.
It’s been a long journey back for the players who were with the program during the 2017 season. There have been losses to endure and new coaches to grow accustomed to — something the Dukes have managed almost seamlessly.
Now, sitting at 14-1, JMU is a single win away from the ultimate redemption tour under first-year head coach Curt Cignetti. When Cignetti took the reins of the program in late December 2018, he saw areas for improvement, and he’s capitalized on that, helping the team improve from a 9-4 record in 2018 to being undefeated in the FCS through this point of the 2019 schedule.
“This team has been a joy to coach,” Cignetti said on the teleconference. “It's been an easy team to coach, to be quite honest with you … There's a winning culture that has been developed over the years [here], and these guys like to compete.”
The only team left to figure out hails from a program that’s run the table in the FCS for the past decade, winning all but one national title since 2011. North Dakota State presents a challenge to the Dukes unlike any of the programs they’ve faced this season up to this point.
On Friday, Cignetti and North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz participated in the DI Football Championship Game Coaches Teleconference ahead of the two programs heading south to Texas next week. Here are the main takeaways from the call.
No. 1: To be successful, there needs to be respect for the opponent
While the two fan bases have grown accustomed to the occasional Twitter beef, the respect between them and the two teams is large. It’d be hard for JMU football not to notice that the success experienced by the Bison over the past decade is unmatched throughout college football, while those in North Dakota have come to acknowledge the growing talent out of the Shenandoah Valley.
For the Dukes, their opponent is a talented group with young, dynamic stars who have had a winning mindset instilled in them because of the program they’re a part of. Since the 2011 season, NDSU holds an astounding 33-1 playoff record with the only loss coming to JMU during the Dukes’ national championship run in 2016.
“Obviously, we play a formidable opponent with a tremendous tradition — almost unmatched tradition, really,” Cignetti said. “We recognize the challenge before us, but really, in terms of the preparation, you prepare for this one like you do any other game.”
Like Cignetti, this is Entz’s first season at the helm for the North Dakota State Bison. However, his knowledge about JMU isn’t solely limited to what he’s seen on tape. Entz has been with NDSU since 2014, serving as the defensive coordinator until former head coach Chris Klieman left the program last season for an FBS coaching job at Kansas State.
Entz has led two defenses against the Dukes during his time as the Bison’s defensive coordinator. In the two meetings, his defenses have allowed 684 yards and five touchdowns against JMU — with the stronger performance coming two seasons ago in the title game.
“We know we're going to play an outstanding football team in James Madison,” Entz said. “Coach Cignetti's done a great job of putting together a highly talented roster … We know that we're going to have to continue to have great preparation to have [an opportunity] win this ballgame.”
No. 2: Defense will play a major role
On paper, JMU’s and NDSU’s defenses are almost identical.
The two powerhouses have been stout throughout 2019, producing numbers that have separated the two programs from the rest of the FCS. The national title game will feature the No. 1 and No. 2 defense, nearly cementing the idea that defense wins championships when paired with a talented offense.
Heading into the championship game, the Dukes sit at No. 1 in the nation for total defense and rushing defense, with few teams being capable of getting any type of movement going against them. With senior leadership at nearly every position on the defense, it’s understandable as to why teams struggle — especially in the run game. Much of the attention this year has been on the defensive line, bookended by redshirt senior Ron’Dell Carter and senior John Daka.
“They're going to get into some different fronts,” Entz said. “They're a, what I'm going to consider, a four-two-five defense … They play a number of defensive tackles that I really think solidify their front, and their front seven is so dynamic and cover some ground.”
Entz even added the importance of players like senior linebacker Landan Word and how critical his role is to JMU. Word, who transferred to JMU from U. Va in 2017, isn’t the most outspoken player on the Dukes’ defense, but he’s proven that he’ll be there to make a play when needed. The Third Team All-CAA selection has started every game this season, posting 46 total tackles.
JMU’s defense has had a strong hold on the FCS this season, but North Dakota State isn’t far behind. The Dukes allow an average of 264.7 yards per game, while NDSU allows only 5.2 more yards. On the ground, JMU does have the upperhand, giving up only 61.1 yards per game, while the Bison allow more than double that with 135.6 yards a contest.
Cignetti’s rush defense needs to be at its best against a strong NDSU rush attack. Behind redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance and a plethora of running backs, the Bison can attack on the ground, currently averaging 288 yards per game rushing — good for No. 4 in the country.
“They're committed to running the ball,” Cignetti said. “They play four running backs, but they'll play four tight ends [and] two fullbacks … They’re like that on defense, too. They roll two d-lines the whole game.”
When the game ends next week, don’t expect it to have been a high-scoring show between the two programs. The offenses may have put up lofty numbers this season, but with the defenses that’ll take the field in Frisco, those numbers will be nearly impossible to replicate.
No. 3: Ben DiNucci has earned the praise he’s receiving
Only a few weeks ago, redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci sat down for a press conference following a game and made some things pretty clear — he was tired of hearing about last season.
So much of this year’s storyline when it comes to DiNucci has been redemption, so it’s easy to see why he’s done talking about it. When his season ended with five interceptions against Colgate and he entered a quarterback battle last spring, DiNucci’s future leading the Dukes wasn’t as clear as it once was.
But, through 15 games this season, DiNucci has proven time and time again that he deserves for people to stop talking about last season’s struggles. He’s only thrown five interceptions, has the second-highest passer efficiency behind only Lance and has earned himself multiple All-American selections.
“We have three good quarterbacks here, and he won [the job] in the fall,” Cignetti said. “Aside from … kind of a bad turnover at West Virginia in the fourth quarter, he's done a good job protecting the ball … he's played as well as any quarterback in the country this season.”
From Entz’s perspective at NDSU, DiNucci has helped create a dependable offense. He referenced on the call how the Dukes have several seniors that can make plays but put an emphasis on what DiNucci has done at the quarterback position.
If JMU wants its shot at hoisting the trophy next Saturday, DiNucci will need to what he’s done most of the season — use his legs, look for his reliable receivers like redshirt seniors Riley Stapleton and Brandon Polk, and take care of the ball.
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.