Pair two teams as similar — and as excellent — as James Madison and North Dakota State, and just a single facet can completely change the game.
Both the Dukes and Bison marched to Frisco for their third FCS Playoffs matchup in four years in remarkably comparable fashion. Both teams feature a variety of playmakers on offense; each has outstanding lines, both offensively and defensively; both play with unparalleled physicality.
Just look at the numbers:
- North Dakota State averages 37.87 points per game, while holding opponents to 11.8 points per game — a margin of 26.07. James Madison scores 41.33 points per game while allowing 14.87, an average of 26.46.
- The Dukes rush for 248.3 yards per game and have scored 43 touchdowns on the ground. The Bison rush for 288 yards per and reached the end zone 46 times.
- The North Dakota State run defense limited opponents to nine touchdowns. James Madison’s nation-leading rush defense has given up seven.
All told, you can expect a wildly competitive game that comes down to a final possession.
Special Teams Front & Center
While the offensive and defensive dominance of JMU and NDSU mirror each other, the Dukes’ special teams play all season has given them an extra element of danger.
No team blocked more kicks than North Dakota State’s nine. With three on his own, D’Angelo Amos comes into the National Championship with the second-most in the country.
Blocks already bolstered James Madison once in this postseason: Two in the first half of the Dukes’ Round of 16 matchup with Monmouth ignited the rout. What’s more, it wasn’t the dynamic Amos busting through to deflect those attempts against the Hawks; it was John Daka and Garrett Groulx.
When he’s not blocking kicks, Amos impacts special teams in other ways. He ran a punt back for a touchdown this season, and took two to the house in a single game in the 2018 season.
North Dakota State’s coverage team has been predictably excellent, allowing just 5.75 yards per opportunity.
If it comes down to a field goal, James Madison has the statistical edge. Dukes kicker Ethan Ratke connected on 80.7 percent of his 31 attempts, including 7-of-9 from beyond 40 yards; North Dakota State’s Griffin Crosa made 73.3 percent of 19 attempts and went 2-of-4 beyond 40 yards.
Pack A Sacked Lunch
The sack numbers both defenses have racked up all season are staggering. North Dakota State recorded 42 through its 15 games on the way to Frisco; James Madison, 46.
Derrek Tuszka set the pace for the Bison with 12.5, seven sacks more than the next-most accrued by Spencer Waege. For James Madison, meanwhile, generating sacks is a team-wide endeavor that starts with a thoroughly dominant defensive line.
The tenacity of All-Americans John Daka and Ron’Dell Carter on the ends and Mike Greene on the interior is about more than creating sacks. JMU defensive linemen occupying blockers fuels the nation’s No. 1 rushing defense, as linebacker Dimitri Holloway explained.
“Sometimes, it’s amazing to watch how fast they get back there,” Holloway said. “It’s poetry. You see the holes open up that are supposed to open for you as a linebacker, you just fill them quicker than [a defense] usually can when the defensive line is getting blown up. Or if you drop back against the pass, you might not have to cover somebody as long because those guys are getting back there.”
North Dakota State’s offensive line is arguably the best in the country, however, allowing just 12 sacks all season. James Madison gave up about twice as many sacks in the 15 outings leading up to Frisco.
Playing From In Front
Both JMU and NDSU in their quarterfinal wins uncharacteristically struggled to score points. And yet, neither game ever really felt in doubt, the result of the opposing offense struggling even more.
James Madison scored in the first quarter on Northern Iowa, and forced the Panthers to play with a sense of desperation for the remainder of the night. SImilarly, North Dakota State put nine second-quarter points up on Illinois State; that two-possession lead going into the third quarter appeared downright insurmountable.
In a game where points are likely to come at a high premium, scoring first places particular pressure on the trailing team. Pressure turns into errors and can snowball fast.