It is a rare occurrence when the top two seeds reach the championship game. In fact, it was just the third time under the current FCS playoff system.
No. 1 James Madison versus No. 2 North Dakota State lived up to the hype, as both physical teams brought their sledgehammers and their defensive prowess.
At the end of the day, the Bison scavenged enough points to beat the Dukes 17-13 to claim their sixth championship in seven years.
From the onset, the type of game that was expected broke out with just a few surprises.
Through the first seven plays, the Dukes’ offense went three and out gaining zero yards, while the Bison were looking at a punt after gaining just two yards.
The complexity of the game changed on the punt, as JMU linebacker Bryce Maginley ran into Bison punter Jackson Koonce. The resulting penalty gave the Bison a first down, and they put together a methodical drive.
Easton Stick connected with RJ Urzendowski for a 15-yard pass to set up a Bruce Anderson punch in from three yards.
On a day when the end zone was rarely visited, the seven points became a luxury.
The Dukes found that out quickly. Following a short punt and long return into the NDSU red zone, the Dukes were set to tie the game.
The Bison defense said otherwise. Dukes quarterback Bryan Schor, solid all year, misfired on three straight throws. James Madison had to settle for just three points.
James Madison forced the game’s first turnover. Simeyon Robinson got to Stick, and the ball came out on the hit. The Dukes took over just outside the Bison red zone.
A pair of Bison seniors took it upon themselves to stop the drive. Jarrod Tuszka pressured Schor, who threw the ball toward the ground due to the hit. The ball hit Nate Tanguay in the leg, and the defensive tackle made a shoelace catch.
It was the first career interception for the 6’4″ 291 lb. senior in his 55th game in green and gold.
Five plays later, the Bison hit the home run. Darrius Shepherd sold the Dukes’ defense the double move, and Stick found him wide open for the 50-yard touchdown.
“We needed to hit the home run. Not many teams hit a home run on those guys,” Klieman said.
The young guns on defense then took their turn. Redshirt freshman Jabril Cox teamed up with Caleb Butler to sack Schor. Cox then stopped Schor from scrambling. On third down, freshman cornerback Josh Hayes, making his first start due to injuries to Jaylaan Wimbush and Jalen Allison, forced JMU receiver Riley Stapleton to fumble. Cox was there to pick up the ball.
Cam Pedersen knocked through a 32-yard field goal to make it 17-3 before the half. The Dukes figured out the Bison defense and drove down the field in 31 seconds to kick another field goal.
Out of halftime, the Dukes continued to click offensively. Once again set up by a big punt return by D’Angelo Amos, James Madison chipped their way to the goal line. Marcus Marshall punched it in from the 1-yard line to make it 17-13.
The next drive for James Madison looked just as promising. Schor hit Stapleton on two straight throws to the Bison 20-yard line. Schor looked for Ishmael Hyman toward the end zone, but Marquise Bridges cut under the route for the interception.
“We found a way to play red zone defense, which has been a staple for us,” Klieman said.
The Bison defense continued to do their job in the fourth and had a little luck. The Dukes suffered from drops all day, but none bigger than the one by Terrence Alls. Alls was wide open with a clear path to the end zone as Schor hit his hands. The ball hit the turf and the Bison escaped.
On the next play, NDSU sold out on the blitz and Nick DeLuca had Schor on the ground almost instantly.
“They made the plays and we made too many mistakes. That’s what it boiled down to,” James Madison head coach Mike Houston said.
The Bison offense munched time off the clock, but had no points to show for it.
With just under five minutes remaining, Pedersen had his 38-yard field goal attempt blocked, giving the Dukes one last drive.
It seemed, as the Dukes weren’t going to make it, as the punt unit came on after five plays. Head coach Mike Houston called the fake punt, and Harry O’Kelly scampered for 24 yards.
As they had all day, the Bison defense did its job. On third down, Derrek Tuszka nearly had his third sack of the day, forcing Schor to throw it away.
With one play left, the mini Hail Mary from the Dukes was swatted down at the goal line.
The nation’s number two defense won the day, and the Bison had their sixth title. NDSU held the Dukes to just 241 yards of total offense and scoring on just 50 percent of their red zone chances.
The Bison did their thing, holding onto the ball for 37:41 of the game. NDSU had 48 rushes for 134 yards to aid the time of possession battle. Stick, named the game’s most outstanding player, finished 13 for 22 for 130 yards passing and the lone touchdown, while also adding another 35 yards on the ground.