2023 CAA Football

It's James Madison & North Dakota State, One Last Time

It's James Madison & North Dakota State, One Last Time

Friday’s James Madison-North Dakota State semifinal takes on an air of finality that transcends the win-or-go-home nature of the playoffs.

Dec 16, 2021 by Kyle Kensing
It's James Madison & North Dakota State, One Last Time

During its dynastic run atop the Football Championship Subdivision, North Dakota State has lost a playoff game in the Fargodome exactly once: in 2016 to James Madison. 

The Dukes’ 27-17 national semifinal win is sort of akin to Team USA’s Miracle on Ice against the Soviet Union in 1980—not insomuch that it looked like a massive mismatch on paper, even with North Dakota State’s unblemished record in FCS Playoffs for the five years leading up to that matchup. 

Rather, the earth-shattering semifinal overshadowed the fact that there was another game still to follow—though James Madison’s win over Youngstown State almost felt like a foregone conclusion after the Dukes beat the Bison. 

James Madison’s path to its second-ever FCS national championship interrupted North Dakota State’s run of five straight titles, and remains the only time since 2011 that an opponent prevented the Bison from claiming the crown at the end of a full autumn season. 

A pair of championship-game rematches in the 2017 and 2019 seasons tipped the scale in North Dakota State’s favor. Given the stakes of the three encounters, Bison vs. Dukes has developed into something of a rivalry.

“Since 2016, the top two FCS programs have been JMU and North Dakota State,” Dukes coach Curt Cignetti said. “I know our guys know who they are, and we know who they are.” 

Cignetti was two weeks from leaving his post as head coach of Division II Indiana (Pa.) University when James Madison shocked North Dakota State in the Fargodome—a job that Cignetti said he took “a massive pay cut” to pursue, leaving an assistant’s position at Alabama. 

But his tenure at Indiana led Cignetti to Elon, where he completed a run to the Playoffs in the same 2017 season that concluded with North Dakota State exacting revenge over James Madison in the National Championship Game.

Cignetti’s first season with the Dukes ended in defeat against the Bison, James Madison coming just short of an opportunity to force overtime in a title game for the ages.

With JMU bound for the FBS next year, Friday may be the Dukes’ only chance at a receipt against NDSU under Cignetti. 

To that end, Friday’s semifinal takes on an air of finality that transcends the win-or-go-home nature of the Playoffs. Barring seismic shifts to the football landscape surpassing even the shakeups of the past six months, these two programs will never again meet with anything approaching similar stakes. 

So then, here it is, one last dance between national heavyweights and standard-bearers. The level of competition promises to be appropriately excellent, matched only by the mutual admiration of what the other embodies. 

“There’s great respect between the two programs,” Bison coach Matt Entz said at his weekly press conference, but added of their upcoming semifinal meeting. “Over the course of the last couple years, I’ve gotten to know coach Cignetti a little bit. We had a number of phone conversations as we both navigated the fall, the spring, even a little bit of late with some of the movement conference-wise.” 

North Dakota State won’t be partaking in this round of realignment, leaving the Bison to carry the banner for the FCS into the foreseeable future. Whether they do so in that familiar spot as the champions leans heavily on Friday—which, like the 2016 matchup, could render the result in Frisco a formality. 

Entz called this year’s James Madison bunch “maybe the best team in the country.” The Dukes have played up to that billing in recent weeks, most recently imposing their defensive will on Montana in the quarterfinals. 

James Madison’s look has evolved throughout 2021, due in part to necessity with a bevy of injuries at running back. Cole Johnson acquitted himself more than sufficiently as a pass-heavy quarterback, and the Dukes defense did its job to get JMU to this point. 

But the rout of Montana looked the most akin to the 2019 Dukes that reached Frisco, with the combination of Latrele Palmer running wild in the ground game and Mike Greene playing what Cignetti said was perhaps the defensive lineman’s best performance of the year. 

This North Dakota State team looks different than the 2019 version, more comparable to 2016 in that Trey Lance is no longer at quarterback. Lance, a 1st Round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers last spring, devastated the Dukes with some opportune plays in the National Championship Game. 

With an offensive line Cignetti labeled as “huge,” a multifaceted rushing attack, and the nation’s No. 3 rush defense, the 2021 Bison are more like NDSU teams predating Lance. 

That’s no slight—those teams lost just once in the Playoffs for eight straight seasons.