FRISCO, Texas — While NDSU has seemingly controlled the FCS for the past decade, winning seven of the last eight national titles, it only holds a one-game advantage over the Dukes in the series history.
The Dukes and the Bison have only met three times: The first came in 2011 and the fourth is set to take place Saturday. NDSU topped JMU during the 2011 contest while on its way to its first FCS title — one that started the Bison’s dynasty. But, JMU’s lone win in the series was a monstrous one, knocking off NDSU in the infamous FargoDome — a place where the Bison have been 121-8 since 2011 — before winning its own FCS National Championship a few weeks later.
With Saturday’s game drawing national attention, it’s time to look at how each team is preparing.
1. The opponent's locker room: Bison hope to continue streak
Frisco has slowly become almost like a second Fargo, North Dakota, with the amount of times the Bison have made the trip south. Now, with new head coach Matt Entz, NDSU is looking for its third consecutive national title win.
This year’s Bison roster is on the younger side, which is different from seasons past. While some teams worry about their younger players being too tight, Entz joked that he often worries the opposite of his roster.
“It's not tightness, it's the number of TikTok productions they have,” Entz said.
When it comes to preparing for the Dukes, Entz said he knows the team ahead is one filled with talented players on both sides of the ball.
Entz’s offense has been high-powered all season, but it’s about to face the No. 1 defense in the nation that’s stout in all phases. NDSU’s offense is ranked No. 5 in the FCS and thrives in the rush attack, something that may be difficult to get started against JMU. The Dukes have the No. 1 defense against the rush, allowing just 61.1 yards per game, while the Bison offense runs for 288 yards per game.
“The thing that you appreciate out of JMU’s defense is [that] they don't try to defend you with a quantity of calls, it's the quality of calls that they have,” Entz said. “You watch them, you can tell they're well-coached. They play extremely hard, and for a group as talented as them, that's what gets scary … it’s how hard they play.”
NDSU's defense will be tasked be tasked with limiting redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci, who’s proven he’s a threat both in the air and on the ground this season. Along with DiNucci, JMU’s strength at the running back and wide receiver positions have elevated the Dukes’ offense in the 2019 season.
During the pregame press conference, Entz highlighted how JMU’s two main wide receivers — redshirt seniors Riley Stapleton and Brandon Polk — allow the Dukes to have different plans of attack through the air, with Stapleton being a tall receiver and Polk bringing speed to the flanks. As for the JMU running backs, Entz said he knows his defense needs to be ready to try and bring down redshirt junior Jawon Hamilton and junior Percy Agyei-Obese.
“Physically, they provide … some differences in size and makeup,” Entz said. “Breaking tackles is the one thing that both these guys do an outstanding job [at] … They trust their offensive line, [and] they're going to continue to have a consistent run game. But, what it does is it forces you to have to tackle all game long, and that becomes difficult.”
2. Coach’s corner: Calm and collected ahead of first championship game
As JMU head coach Curt Cignetti took questions from the media during the pregame press conference, he never faltered from the messages he’s given all season: It’s another game, and the Dukes can’t play “too high or too low.”
“They did a great job with their focus — focusing in on the right things — [and] played consistently throughout the season,” Cignetti said. “These guys have played a lot of ball together and, so, here we are, ready to go.”
One of the hardest tasks JMU faces is limiting redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance. Even in his first season leading the Bison, Lance has played like a seasoned veteran in the pocket.
The Marshall, Minnesota, native put together a freshman campaign that saw him named the Walter Payton Award recipient. This season, Lance has accumulated 934 yards on the ground and 2,714 through the air while not throwing a single interception. Lance also has 28 touchdown passes and 18 scores rushing.
“The best way to contain any quarterback, really, is to put pressure on him in the pass game, hit him a lot,” Cignetti said. “They have really good players across the board on the offensive line, at wide receiver, at running back … You can't hone in on one or two things because they're so multiple.”
Cignetti said he believes his team is ready for Saturday’s matchup and whatever may come with it. He said he knows that weather may be iffy, but he also said they’ve practiced outdoors to prepare for moments like this. Cignetti also said the basis of what JMU football was founded on will help when the team takes the field.
“There's a great culture at JMU with the tradition and the success of the past,” Cignetti said. “It's been talked about [that] they got off track maybe just a little bit last year with their focus. They realized that … We had a plan and we knew what we wanted and improved the team without question.”
3. Player’s perspective: Take this game like any other week
All season for the Dukes, the goal has been to focus on the lone game ahead and not worry about who’s suiting up on the other side of the ball. Through 15 games, those that mindset has helped JMU piece together a nearly perfect season. With the Bison waiting for the Dukes, the players said they know how to approach the game.
“Although it's a championship game, it's just another game for us,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter said during media day Thursday.
At Friday’s press conference, Carter also talked about how last season’s disappointment is something the team refused to settle for again this year.
The Dukes have already surpassed what they did a season ago, but they still have one job remaining with one game left. With a large number of seniors on the roster, JMU football wants another FCS title to top off a strong season.
“It’s kind of the way you want to go out,” DiNucci said. “Your last game, having played a national championship, you can't really ask for anything else.”
The players who represented the Dukes during the pregame press conference all said they saw at different times throughout the season that this team was built to win the championship. For Carter, he said it came during JMU’s tight battle with Stony Brook. Carter acknowledged that that even though it was a shootout, the team never faltered, and Cignetti remained calm and loose while leading his team.
“When I seen how we fought that entire time, when we knew Rashad [Robinson] was banged up that game, I was banged up the week before, and then when we still stayed together the entire time,” Carter said. “We showed people [what] we can do, so it was that moment right there I was just like, 'This team is doing it.' I already knew."
4. Editors’ input: For the final time
It’s been a long road to Frisco for the Dukes. They had a three-game road trip that had them trekking to Chattanooga, Tennessee, Elon, North Carolina, and Stony Brook, New York, faced ranked teams that threatened their perfect FCS record and overcame injuries.
Under Cignetti, JMU has excelled. Through all of the challenges the Dukes have faced, they’ve found a way to beat them. Whether it was an overtime win against a CAA opponent or flipping the turnover ratio in their favor, the Dukes have done what they needed to do.
JMU’s final challenge comes in the form of NDSU — easily the hardest opponent it’ll face this season. When you look at the stat sheets, these two programs are beyond similar. There’s the leadership needed for deep playoff runs paired with star players who make big plays in key moments. Both teams are more than capable of winning this game and, in a way, both are deserving of a national championship this year.
With the skill on both teams and the two strong coaching staffs leading them into the game Saturday, the end result is a hard one to pick. This could very well be a game where whoever has the ball last wins. As for the final prediction of the season, JMU wins 21-16.
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.