FRISCO, Texas — Before they battle, there’s going to be a friendly reunion.
“I can’t wait to see him,” North Dakota State offensive line coach AJ Blazek said Thursday at Toyota Stadium. “I’ll give him a big ‘ole hug when I see him.”
Blazek worked in the same role at Rutgers when current James Madison defensive end Ron’Dell Carter played for the Scarlet Knights.
On Saturday at noon the Dukes and Bison — the current squads of Carter and Blazek, respectively — meet in the FCS national championship game.
“He sent me a text when I made All-American and was [Colonial Athletic Association Defensive] Player of the Year,” Carter said, “so that just let’s you know how good of a guy he is. We’re not at the same school, but to be rivals and about to play each other and he still hits me up, that says a lot about what kind of person he is.”
Carter said he’s happy to know Blazek, and Blazek said he isn’t surprised Carter has turned into one of the top players in the FCS.
“He was a kid we didn’t want to lose,” Blazek said. “It was a situational thing and it was a great move for Ron’Dell. I don’t think it was the wrong move at all, but we really didn’t want to lose him. I know [former Rutgers coach] Chris [Ash] didn’t want to lose him, but we knew he was going to be a good player and he played for us a little bit as a sophomore, so it was a great get for JMU.
“And in college football there are a lot of great players, but he was a really good person. And as an O-Line coach, I got to know him that way. He was a guy that was in the rotation a little bit, but you know what, it couldn’t have been a better move for him to get a good fit.”
Going into the title game Carter has 59 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. He’s also up for the STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award, earned annually by the top defensive player across the subdivision, which will given out on Friday night at a banquet in Frisco.
He said he knows the tough task he’s in for on Saturday, though, having to handle Blazek’s Bison offensive line.
“He’s full of energy and his O-Linemen are going to be very aggressive,” Carter said, “and very physical and they’re going to be very well coached. And they’re probably not going to do a lot of talking. They’re not going to do a lot of trashing. They’re going to just play and they’re going to be energetic.”
• Blazek compared Carter and fellow JMU senior defensive end John Daka to two different running backs creating a “thunder and lightning” type tandem. The coach also said the Dukes’ defensive front, with interior tackles Mike Greene and Adeeb Atariwa too, gives JMU four very differently skilled defensive linemen. About Greene, Blazek said, “He gets overlooked as athletic as he is. He has 7.5 sacks. People worry so much about the edge, they forget he’s in there.”
• North Dakota State senior cornerback Marquise Bridges made his first career start two seasons ago in the 2017 FCS title game against JMU. One of the storylines going into that game was whether or not Bridges would adequately step in for former Bison cornerback Jalen Allison, who was out with an injury. “I looked at it differently,” Bridges said Thursday. “I felt like I was capitalizing on an opportunity because I felt like I could’ve started all year.” Bridges finished with three tackles and an interception to help the Bison top the Dukes that afternoon.
• Bridges called JMU “a great team.” About meeting the Dukes for the third time in four years, “I wouldn’t call it a rivalry,” he said, “but it’s two great programs making a statement in the FCS.”
• Dukes senior wide receiver Brandon Polk said “playing together as one” and “not having any selfish” skill players have allowed JMU’s offense to be as productive as it has been entering Saturday. The Dukes have the second-best scoring offense in all of FCS (41.3 points per game).
• Polk said he sees JMU and North Dakota State as two very similar teams with nearly identical philosophies. He said: “It’s basically like playing ourselves.”
• JMU senior safety Adam Smith said, “This isn’t our first rodeo” when it comes to visiting Frisco for the national championship game. Smith has played in all three title games over the last four years that JMU has reached. He said it helps when players know exactly how to handle all the other events that occur before kickoff on Saturday and can relay the information to the younger players on the roster.
• Smith was honest in his assessment of the past two seasons. “We have unfinished business,” Smith said. “I think we exited the playoffs very early last year and obviously coming down here the year before and losing to North Dakota State, everyone talks about the chip on your shoulder and we take that approach.”
• Smith and JMU’s secondary will have to deal with North Dakota State sophomore wide receiver Christian Watson, a Tampa, Fla., native with 70 catches for 732 yards and six scores entering Saturday. Watson said North Dakota State was the only school to offer him a scholarship out of Plant High School, so he took the opportunity and fell in love with the NDSU program even though Fargo, N.D., isn’t close to Tampa.