FCS Championship Game
The Matchup – No. 1 seed James Madison (14-0) vs. No. 2 seed North Dakota State (13-1)
Kickoff – Noon ET Saturday at Toyota Stadium (17,177) in Frisco, Texas
Coverage – ESPN2
Series – Tied 1-1 (last meeting: James Madison won 27-17 at North Dakota State in an FCS semifinal on Dec. 16, 2016)
Coaches – James Madison: Mike Houston, 28-1 in two seasons (71-20 overall); North Dakota State: Chris Klieman, 53-6 in four seasons (56-13 overall)
Players to Watch – James Madison: QB Bryan Schor (257 of 385, 3,074 yards, 26 TDs, 12 INTs; 303 rushing yards, 7 TDs), RB Marcus Marshall (132 carries, 820 yards, 10 TDs), WR Terrence Alls (53 receptions, 681 yards, 2 TDs), WR Riley Stapleton (35 receptions, 508 yards, 5 TDs), LT Aaron Stinnie (first-team All-American), DE Andrew Ankrah (54 TT, 15 1/2 TFL, 8 1/2 sacks), DT Cornell Urquhart (55 TT, 8 1/2 TFL, 4 sacks), LB Kyrie Hawkins (101 TT, 14 TFL, 7 sacks, 8 PBU), FS Raven Greene (75 TT, 5 INTs, 7 PBU), SS Jordan Brown (74 TT, 9 INTs, 6 PBU); North Dakota State: QB Easton Stick (151 of 242, 2,336 yards, 27 TDs, 8 INTs; 596 rushing yards, 11 TDs), RB/KR Bruce Anderson (216 carries, 1,153 yards, 11 TDs), WR RJ Urzendowski (35 receptions, 589 yards, 8 TDs), WR/PR Darrius Shepherd (35 receptions, 485 yards), OG Austin Kuhnert (first-team All-American), DT Nate Tanguay (17 TT, 3 1/2 TFL, 4 PBU), MLB Nick DeLuca (70 TT, 9 1/2 TFL, 5 1/2 sacks, 3 FF), SLB Jabril Cox (72 TT, 12 1/2 TFL, 4 sacks), SS Robbie Grimsley (63 TT, 4 INTs, 7 PBU, 2 FR), FS Tre Dempsey (47 TT, 6 INTs, 4 PBU)
The Skinny – The 40th FCS championship game is one of the most anticipated in history, with top-ranked James Madison trying to defend its 2016 national title against North Dakota State, whose five-time championship run from 2011-15 was ended by the Dukes in last season’s semifinals. Both teams play a physical style, think run first and have the most consistent defenses in the FCS. In fact, JMU ranks first in the FCS in scoring defense (10.7 ppg) and third in total defense (251.1 ypg), while NDSU is second in scoring defense (11.5) and first in total defense (237.1). The Dukes are on a 26-game winning streak, the longest current streak in the NCAA and the second-longest in FCS history to North Dakota State’s 33 in a row from 2012-14. In a semifinal rout of South Dakota State, the CAA Football champ forced 10 turnovers to push its season total to an FCS-high 43, including 31 interceptions. Brown and CB Jimmy Moreland lead their opportunistic secondary with 10 takeaways each. The excellence on the back end also has allowed the Dukes to rack up 48 sacks. Schor, the offensive leader, threw for 242 yards and three touchdowns in the 2016 playoff win over NDSU. In the Dukes’ two most recent playoffs wins, Marshall (331 rushing yards, 4 TDs) and Stapleton (13 receptions, 3 TDs) have come alive. The Bison offense also has surging players: Stick, who’s totaled 13 TDs in three playoff wins, and Anderson, who has 575 yards from scrimmage and 10 TDs in their last four games. Anderson should get the bulk of the carries for a rushing attack that averages 282.1 yards per game, although there’s possibility of Lance Dunn (hip) and Ty Brooks (shoulder) returning from injuries. But the Missouri Valley Conference power is built around its defense, which struggled in last year’s loss to JMU, allowing 443 yards. DeLuca is the emotional leader and missed that game with a shoulder injury. The pass rushers need a quick step because starting cornerbacks Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush suffered knee injuries in the semifinals. The depth chart indicates one will be the starter opposite sophomore Marquise Bridges, who would make his first start. Both JMU and NDSU are strong on special teams, from kicking to returns.
Prediction – These are the two best programs in the FCS and it’s the matchup so many people wanted in Frisco. We predicted the matchup in the preseason and will stick with the original pick. North Dakota State 24, James Madison 21.