FRISCO, Texas — In a season where JMU football fought through every obstacle it faced, the final challenge proved too much.
A defense that held strong in every game was picked apart. An offense that ran the ball to open its pass game was shut down. The Dukes held at points in the game, but it wasn’t enough to match North Dakota State.
JMU went toe-to-toe with the Bison for a chance to get the Dukes their third national championship in program history. Instead, it was the Bison who continued their dynasty, defeating the Dukes, 28-20.
This is the eighth FCS championship in the past nine years for NDSU.
“Obviously, didn't get the result we wanted today,” JMU head coach Curt Cignetti said. “[I] give North Dakota State a lot of credit — great football team.”
NDSU redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance, who was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player, led the way with 166 rushing yards — the first player to run for over 100 yards against JMU all season. It was his 44-yard touchdown run that made it 28-13 and all but sealed the Bison’s third consecutive FCS title.
A meticulous opening drive from JMU saw the Dukes take a 7-0 lead via a five-yard touchdown reception by redshirt senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton, but the Bison offense had no trouble carving through JMU’s defense for the remainder of the first half. Following the first touchdown, NDSU won the rest of the first half 21-3, putting itself in the driver’s seat for the final two quarters.
The turning point came when the Dukes made a key stop on third down with under six minutes left in the first half. NDSU lined up for a field goal, but head coach Matt Entz called a trick play. Instead of a kick, it was senior free safety James Hendricks who took the ball 20 yards and into the end zone.
It was still a two-possession game, but the momentum was all NDSU, and the Bison didn’t look back.
“[We] talked about being resilient, like rubber ball, in this game,” Cignetti said. “At that point we're down two scores but plenty of time really to get back in the game … I thought we [had] moments that game we showed our true character and stepped up and gave ourselves a chance.”
The Dukes’ defense made a stop on the first drive of the second half, giving the offense a chance to cut into the deficit. A 10-play, 50-yard drive was capped by redshirt junior kicker Ethan Ratke, who brought JMU within eight, but the teams traded punts on the following two possessions.
With JMU needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game, the Dukes remained in striking distance. But when the defense put NDSU in a third-and-23 situation, it was Lance who broke through the Dukes’ defensive line, ran toward the sideline and tip-toed into the end zone.
“It’s hard to tackle him sometimes,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter said. “We had some opportunities to get him down, but just didn’t.”
Trailing 28-13 with 7:20 left to play, redshirt junior safety D’Angelo Amos returned a punt 35 yards, allowing DiNucci and the offense to start in Bison territory. Forty-six yards later, DiNucci found Stapleton for a five-yard touchdown to make it 28-20.
The Dukes needed one more stop to keep the comeback bid alive. It did just that, setting up fourth and 2 for NDSU at the JMU 37. The dynamic duo of defensive ends — Carter and senior John Daka — teamed up to stop Lance and give the offense the chance to tie the game with 2:51 left.
The comeback bid was alive and well, but the magic ran out.
On fourth and three with the game on the line, DiNucci completed a shovel pass to redshirt junior running back Jawon Hamilton who kept JMU alive. Then, DiNucci found redshirt senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton for a 22-yard haul. With 23 seconds left, the Dukes were 17 yards away from doing the unthinkable.
An offside and defensive pass interference call later, JMU had it first and goal at the Bison three-yard line with eight seconds left.
DiNucci rolled to his left and targeted redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk, but his pass was just short and picked off by Hendricks. The comeback fell short, and the Dukes were denied a dream ending.
“Roll out to the left, Brandon Polk’s the first option [and] and looked open,” DiNucci said. “I didn’t see No. 6. [He] made a heck of a play.”
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.