James Madison and Northern Iowa meet in Friday’s national quarterfinals with a similar look – and we’re not just referring to purple-gold-and-white uniforms.
The Colonial Athletic Association champion Dukes return to Bridgeforth Stadium ranked third in the nation in points allowed per game at just 16.1. Missouri Valley Football Conference representatives Northern Iowa rank seventh, giving up just 17.7 points per game.
Stuffing The Run
Both played excellent defensive games in the 2nd Round to advance. After a busted fit on the first play from scrimmage resulted in a 93-yard rushing touchdown for Monmouth, James Madison did what it has all season and shut down the Hawks on the ground.
“Physically, we took control early and could see it on the sideline,” Cignetti said.
After that initially run, the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing defense held Monmouth with another net rushing yard. The 93 total equaled 28 more than the Dukes’ season-long per-game average, but still – pretty, pretty good performance.
While James Madison parlayed its defensive dominance into an offensive eruption, setting a program record with 66 points scored, Northern Iowa outlasted MVFC counterpart South Dakota State in a slugfest, 13-10.
The Panthers held the Jackrabbits to just 53 rushing yards, 2.3 per attempt.
Northern Iowa has a pair of heat-seekers in linebacker Bryce Flater and cornerback Christian Jegen. Both went over 100 tackles for the year, contributing to a rush defense that ranks ninth nationally at 104.7 yards allowed per game.
UNI’s outstanding effort against the run in its last game mirrors how the Panthers performed in the season opener. They took Big 12 Conference member Iowa State – a team ranked in the Top 25 for portions of the season – to overtime tied at 13 in regulation. The Cyclones did not score a rushing touchdown until the final overtime frame.
In a game Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said he felt his team “ran the ball extremely well,” the Cyclones averaged just 4.1 yards per carry. That was the second-highest yield the Panthers allowed all season.
Few defenses anywhere around college football can match the one-two sacking combination James Madison has up front with defensive ends John Daka and Ron’Dell Carter. Carter earned designation as one of three finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award with his 56 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks an 11 quarterback hurries.
But Daka had a strong case as well, posting 55 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks and nine quarterback hurries with three forced fumbles.
No matter which Duke it is, it’s tough to go wrong deeming either the most fearsome pass-rusher in the nation. Northern Iowa counters with the dynamite duo of Elerson Smith and Jared Brinkman.
The two Panthers linemen combined for 35.5 tackles for loss and 21 sacks, with Smith’s 14 ranking fourth-most among all FCS players.
Countering The Offense
In addition to similar numbers across a variety of categories, both James Madison and Northern Iowa feature some similar looks. Each can go deep into the rotation, which allows for some masking of formations and adaptation to different offensive styles.
“They do seem to change quite a bit, week-to-week,” Cignetti said. “Watched the first three games, looking backward, and they’re a four-down [linemen] defense. Thought we had a beat on what was going on, then all of a sudden, you put the next game on they’re almost exclusively three-down defense.”
Northern Iowa’s ability to change its base formations without losing efficiency promises to challenge the multifaceted James Madison offense. The Dukes have excelled all season in throwing a variety of ball-carriers at defense, while Ben DiNucci’s immaculately efficient passing attack forces the opposition to cover the entire field.
Using words like efficient to describe James Madison’s offense falls so far short of describing how electric it’s been, though. The Dukes led the nation in scoring, just ahead of reigning national champion North Dakota State.
The similarly built Bison posted 46 points on the Panthers.
However, the Panthers’ reversal of fortunes in two matchups with South Dakota State show their ability to adapt. They gave up 38 points less than a month ago, then turned around to hold them to just 10 in the Playoffs.
The Northern Iowa offense lacks the explosiveness of James Madison’s. Thus a final score with the winning side posting fewer than 30 benefits Northern Iowa. The Dukes offense coming alive is just as vital as the defense overwhelming the Panthers.
A timely turnover or two can help with that cause.
James Madison has a knack for creating turnovers with 24 generated on the season. Combined with DiNucci’s savvy in the passing game, the Dukes have a plus-11 margin for 2019.
Northern Iowa’s turnover margin is one of the best in the FCS, plus-15. Credit the team’s 32 takeaways, which are fourth-most in the nation.
Smith and Brinkman’s ability to get into the backfield has resulted in eight forced fumbles, while Jegen and Omar Brown have capitalized on quarterbacks throwing into traffic to the tune of four and six interceptions.
It’s a remarkably similar game of cause-and-effect that James Madison’s pressure plays into Adam Smith and Rashad Robinson boasting six and three picks on the years, and D’Angelo Amos and Wayne Davis adding two more.
How each offense parlays any potential takeovers could dictate the tone of Friday’s contest. Northern Iowa can use them to grind down the tempo, while James Madison uses takeaways to ratchet up the scoring.