James Madison Fell Short, But The Dukes Aren't Going Anywhere

FRISCO, Texas  Were James Madison and North Dakota State to play 100 times, it’s easy to predict that they would split the series 50-50. 

Alas, there was only one 2020 FCS Championship Game — but what a game. A title bout between No. 1 and No. 2 ending just yards from the goal line feels downright cinematic. 

That movie for JMU ended up more original Rocky than Rocky II. The Dukes “just ran out of time,” as quarterback Ben DiNucci put it. 

Had DiNucci’s pass attempt to Brandon Polk not been intercepted, JMU would have set up at essentially the exact same point on the field again to play for overtime. No FCS title game has ever gone to extra frames since its inception in 1978. 

The inevitable disappointment of standing literally just feet from history and falling short showed on the Dukes’ faces, particularly the seniors playing their last collegiate game. 

And yet, Ron’Dell Carter — one of those seniors — expressed appreciation for the gravity of the moment.  

“As a football player and as a competitor, you live for the number one and number two team,” he said. “And it was a good game until the end of it.”

This matchup ended with North Dakota State on the makeshift stage at Toyota Stadium, showered in confetti and celebrating with the trophy, as it has seven times before. 

The Bison dynasty ain’t going anywhere with Trey Lance at quarterback for another few years. A playmaker Dukes coach Curt Cignetti called “a cut above,” the only freshman ever to win the Walter Payton Award can play another three years of college ball if he so chooses. 

His 44-yard touchdown run on a third-and-22 was the de facto game-winning score. It was also the only North Dakota State score on the afternoon that wasn’t the result of either a penalty or trick play. 

DiNucci said he believed Saturday’s 28-20 outcome was a result of JMU beating itself, citing the penalties and some other uncharacteristic errors. 

The contrast in how the Dukes scored is indeed noteworthy. Both of their touchdowns, as well as the two field goal-producing drives and the end-of-game push to the shadow of the goal line were the result of the same kind of effective, balanced and physical drives that made the JMU offense the nation’s highest-scoring coming into the national championship. 

Seniors like DiNucci, wide receivers Brandon Polk and Riley Stapleton, and tight end Dylan Stapleton proved crucial to such drives all season long, but the title game underscored why the Dukes’ immediate future is bright. 

The multifaceted rushing attack peppered in the usual combination of Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton; the juniors return in 2020. Freshman Latrele Palmer came up huge in the final drives — appropriate, given his power-back frame. 

“My game is angry runner. I don’t believe anyone can tackle me, that’s my mindset when I get the ball,” Palmer said. 

The hard-running Palmer figures to be even stronger and running angrier in the next campaign, citing the work of the James Madison strength and conditioning staff. 

The last Alabama team on which Cignetti was part of the coaching staff in 2010 featured a rotation of 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, 2011 Heisman finalist Trent Richardson and 2013 BCS Championship Offensive MVP Eddie Lacy. 

James Madison’s 2020 backfield has a similar feel with 1,239-yard, 18-touchdown scoring Agyei-Obese returning. Hamilton finished just under 1,000 yards. There was talk of both hitting that four-digit milestone outside the Dukes locker room. 

Palmer should factor in as the Lacy of that group — and that’s all before considering Solomon Vanhorse will be back as JMU’s elusive, change-of-pace back. 

Or mentioning that quarterback Gage Moloney came on in the fourth quarter, taking snaps in designed run sets. 

“We’ve looked up to these guys and seen how they do it,” Moloney said of JMU’s underclassmen following the outgoing seniors. “We just reenact it like them. It’s not very hard. Keep the thing flowing, is all we can say.” 

The North Dakota State dynasty may not be going away, but so much of Saturday’s Championship suggests James Madison isn’t, either. 

Comparisons of the series for the week leading up to the final drew parallels between Alabama and Clemson, who met in four College Football Playoffs from the 2015 through 2018 seasons. If JMU-NDSU is indeed the FCS equivalent, we’re running this thing back one more time. 

At least. 

A stellar defense will have to fill some prominent holes: linebacker Dimitri Holloway was one of the best run-pursuing tacklers in the country, and JMU boasted the two premier defensive ends in the game. 

And that’s no hyperbole: The statistics support the case for John Daka and Carter as one of the most dominant tag teams in recent memory at any level. 

But Daka offered strong endorsement for the Dukes 2020 defensive line. 

“Mike Greene’s coming back, and Mike Greene is one of the best, if not the best three-technique guy in the country,” Daka said. “Adeeb [Atariwa], I feel like he’s going to be one of the best players in the country, too. We have guys ready to step up, and I have full faith in the coaching staff.” 

Dukes who impacted the memorable 2019 season returning for 2020 promise another outstanding campaign. Newcomers will shape JMU’s season to come, as well, whether freshmen or transfers. 

The recruiting pitch for prospects is certainly attractive. Success has a way of sustaining itself on signing day, as reflected in Palmer’s memories of his own recruitment. 

“Cignetti was at Elon, and he offered me at Elon,” Palmer said. “I got a random call one day. He was like, ‘Latrele, guess what? I got the job at JMU.’ I was like, ‘Oh, really?’ I wanted to go to JMU, so that was a no-brainer. It was an automatic I’d go to JMU.” 

The decision’s been a no-brainer for a strong 2020 class, as well, which includes three 3-star prospects who all ranked in the commonwealth of Virginia’s top 50. 

Cignetti also noted the program’s success with transfers, a corps that included Carter, DiNucci, Polk, Dylan Stapleton and Hamilton. 

Hamilton, who came to JMU from UCF, explained what made the program a desirable destination. 

“Once you walk in the locker room, in the atmosphere, you can just feel it,” Hamilton said. “Everyone has a strong bond. That feeling is special. 

“Obviously, it’s sad we couldn’t send the seniors out the right way,” Hamilton added. “But this isn’t the end of the road."

The returners like Hamilton feel that sentiment, and the upperclassmen who helped restore the Dukes to championship contention feel it, too. 

“It’s not the last time you’ll hear about us,” Daka said.

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