FRISCO, Texas — With one day remaining until the 2019 FCS National Championship game between JMU and North Dakota State, both head coaches and a handful of players from each team spoke to the media.
For the Dukes, it was a veteran-heavy panel of players. Head coach Curt Cignetti spoke alongside redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter, redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci, redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway and redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson.
The Bison’s head coach, Matt Entz, junior linebacker Jabril Cox, redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance and senior defensive end Derrick Tuszka spoke for NDSU, as all of them make their return to Frisco.
- Both teams have a great amount of respect for each other
Many compare the JMU-NDSU rivalry to Alabama and Clemson. Each team has recently found itself in numerous national championship games in their respective divisions. The Bison and Dukes have been to the FCS title game a combined 11 times since 2011, with the Bison reaching it eight times and the Dukes three. The Crimson Tide and Tigers have made the BCS National Championship or College Football Playoff championship nine times in that span as well.
While NDSU has more titles in its trophy case, JMU has done more than earn the respect of many by winning two FCS championships and seven total CAA titles. Entz noted that early, signifying the mutual respect the two teams have.
“[We] know that we’re going to play an outstanding football team tomorrow in James Madison University,” Entz said. “You look at their roster, [they have] a ton of talent. They’ve won some big-time games, they play in a great league and we’re gonna have to play at our best to have an opportunity to compete with them.”
Entz further noted his gratitude for the Bison senior class, saying NDSU wouldn’t be back at Toyota Stadium without them. The veteran presence is key for a team’s journey to a championship, and JMU’s seniors have been a cornerstone in its success in 2019.
Both Entz and Lance credited the lethal defensive end pairing of Carter and senior John Daka, who have combined for 28 sacks this season for a combined loss of 197 yards. Carter and Daka, as well as junior defensive tackle Mike Greene and redshirt junior nose guard Adeeb Atariwa, will each be tested Saturday, as they’ll square up against a secure NDSU O-Line.
“They’re going to be well-coached, they’re going to be disciplined and they’re going to do every little thing right,” Carter said regarding the Bison offensive line. “Traditionally, [they have] a great offensive line. They have three All-Americans ... They’re not probably going to be doing a lot of trash talking; that’s not the type of team or O-Line they are.”
Carter knows NDSU offensive line coach AJ Blazek from his time at Rutgers. Carter knows the type of mentality Blazek puts into his players. That could help Carter on Saturday afternoon as he tries to handle the elusive Bison quarterback.
- 2. Weather is a wild card
The weather in Frisco is similar to what’s seen in the Shenandoah Valley. On Friday, the high was 71 degrees with thunderstorms hitting the area sporadically throughout the day. Then, on Saturday, the temperature at kickoff is expected to be 35 degrees with the wind nearing 20 mph.
All season long, JMU’s coaches have adjusted to various situations like weather, changing gameplans and injuries. It won’t be any different when tomorrow comes, but it presents an interesting aspect to an already hyped-up contest.
“We'll be all right. We're from Fargo, we practice in [what] I'd like to think [is] the worst,” Lance said, laughing alongside his teammates and coach. “It was about negative 14 when we left Fargo. It will be like a spring game to us. We'll be all right.”
Entz echoed Lance’s statement but added they’ve practiced in poor weather conditions to prepare for games with bad weather. He also said the weather will play a big role in the decisions the coaches make before and during the game, such as whether to take the ball at the opening kickoff or defer until the second half.
Cignetti and his coaching staff have made adjustments all season. The game-time decisions that the weather causes will force the game plan to change, but that won’t stunt the Dukes’ rhythm heading into the final game of the season.
“Wind could definitely be a factor in the game, and I guess we’re not really gonna know until tomorrow,” Cignetti said. “But it is gonna be cold, too. Fortunately, we’ve played quite a few cold-weather games here recently. We practice outside in the cold … It doesn’t affect us. I kinda like the weather forecast, to be honest with you.”
- 3. The game could come down to special teams
In the past two games between JMU and NDSU, special teams has played a huge role.
When the Dukes traveled to Fargo, North Dakota, in 2016 in the FCS semifinals, former kicker Tyler Gray nailed a 45-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to hand JMU a 20-17 lead. The Dukes went on to win 27-17 and eventually won the program’s second national championship.
Then, in the 2017 title game, then-redshirt freshman kicker Ethan Ratke missed a 42-yard field goal early in the second quarter that would’ve made the score 7-6 in favor of the Bison. While JMU ended up losing by four, a field goal would’ve meant a touchdown on final drive wasn’t necessary. Instead, another successful field goal could’ve won the Dukes another title.
Both teams have benefitted from special teams this season. In NDSU’s quarterfinal win over Illinois State, freshman kicker Griffin Crosa made three field goals in a 9-3 victory over the Redbirds.
Even if the game doesn’t come down to a field goal as time expires, special teams will determine field position and scoring earlier in the game. It could prove to be the edge that earns either team another national championship.
“Special teams is huge. We’ve made some really big plays on special teams lately,” Cignetti said. “I think it’s gonna be critical tomorrow. We’ve done a nice job with our punts — Harry [O’Kelly] pinning people back, [D’Angelo] Amos has done a nice job with the returns — we’ve blocked some punts.”
Cignetti mentioned redshirt junior kicker Ethan Ratke’s consistency as well. The Mechanicsville, Virginia, native has gone 25-of-31 in field goals and 77-of-78 in PATs, and he’s also broken the single-season record for most field goals.
All season long, teams have tried to avoid kicking to JMU’s agile kick and punt returners. However, Cignetti expects NDSU to keep its kickoffs in play. He credited the Bison kickoff coverage as another area where the Dukes will have their hands full.
With kickoff inching closer, both teams will prepare for every possibility. The little things often determine the results of close games, and JMU and NDSU could come down to the smallest of details to determine the winner.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.