Throughout the 2019 campaign, James Madison has exerted its will on one opponent after another with all phases leaning on each other to produce. Standing a win away from the national championship game heightens the significance of that approach.
“When your defense can shut a team out, especially in the playoffs? When you have that kind of play going on — the offense, defense and special teams all working together to have your back — it doesn’t matter what situation you’re going through,” wide receiver Brandon Polk said. "If there’s a fumble, or the defense gives up a touchdown, we’re always talking [between all three phases].”
And the message being conveyed in those situations, Polk said: “’We’ve got your back.’”
Much of the season on the way to the FCS semifinals, all three phases have been thoroughly dominant in concert with one another. The second round romp against Monmouth is a prime example, with the offense producing a program-best postseason score of 66. At the same time, the defense shut the Hawks down on the ground after an initial 93-yard scoring rush, and special teams provided two blocked kicks.
The quarterfinals defeat of Northern Iowa followed a different and interesting arc. James Madison again dominated across all phases:
- The defense played a historic game, blanking the Panthers both on the scoreboard and in net rushing yards. They crossed midfield just once, and that was after the outcome was no longer in doubt.
- On special teams, punt and kickoff coverage were excellent, resulting in an average starting field position of the 19-yard line for Northern Iowa’s offense.
- Offensively, the Dukes rolled up 346 yards – 50 more than Northern Iowa’s season-long yield – and 189 on the ground. That’s 79 more than the Panthers gave up on average for the season.
Until Percy Agyei-Obese’s touchdown run in the late fourth quarter, however, the score was the tightest James Madison faced in almost two calendars months.
“We had the ball a number of times in their territory and just couldn’t quite make it happen,” Dukes coach Curt Cignetti said. “That was just kind of the story on the offense, we left a lot of points out on the field.”
Such a theme was indeed out of the ordinary for James Madison – and oddly, the theme for much of the quarterfinal weekend.
Weber State, James Madison’s semifinal opponent, scored 17 points in its win over Montana – 11 below its season average – only 10 of which came on offense. A blocked punt in the fourth quarter accounted for the Wildcats’ final touchdown, not unlike the turnover-on-downs that set up the Dukes for their last score on Friday.
North Dakota State mustered just nine points against Illinois State, four full touchdowns below its average. But holding the Redbirds to three points moved the Bison onto the semifinals.
Although three of the four teams still alive in the race to Frisco took uncharacteristic routes to the semifinals on the offensive end, the quarterfinals showed a common theme for all four: Only elite defenses remain.
The four losing teams in the quarterfinals combined for 23 points against defenses that rank No. 1 (NDSU), 3 (JMU), 14 (Weber State) and 19 (Montana State) in points allowed. Not surprisingly, the four have some similar characteristics, starting with imposing lines. Weber State and its trio of All-Big Sky Conference honorees – Jared Schiess, Jonah Williams and Adam Rodriguez – somewhat parallels James Madison with its line of John Daka, Ron’Dell Carter and Mike Greene.
“If you’re going to go all the way, that’s definitely where it starts,” Cignetti said. “I’m not surprised to hear that’s a strength of the four teams [remaining] in the playoffs.”
With the similar makeup of the squads still in the mix, a single play in one of the other phases could and likely will make the difference.