FRISCO, Texas — The trio of seniors ignited James Madison’s offense and kept the Dukes within striking range as the FCS national championship game wore on.
Quarterback Ben DiNucci used wide receiver Riley Stapleton and tight end Dylan Stapleton to move the unit forward.
“Fortunate enough to have my number called a few times,” said Riley Stapleton, who finished with a game-high 10 catches for game-best 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the Dukes’ 28-20 loss to North Dakota State on Saturday. “Ben put the ball where I could get it.”
His brother, Dylan, made six catches for 66 yards.
Between the two 6-foot-5 targets they picked up nine first downs, including two on the opening series when JMU went 86 yards over 17 plays before DiNucci capped the series with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Riley.
DiNucci and Riley connected again for a 5-yard score with 6:55 remaining to pull within eight points of the Bison.
“Been a heck of a two years playing with him,” DiNucci said of Riley. “Unfortunate to send the seniors out like this, being our last game, but wouldn’t really trade any of these past two years for the world. But any time I see a guy pressed on Riley, I’ll start licking my lips. That’s basically what I did today.”
Dylan said he knew in the weeks leading into Saturday that he’d have space to operate against the Bison defense. He made a jumping two-handed catch for 18 yards to push the Dukes inside the NDSU 30-yard line during JMU’s final possession before halftime that ended with kicker Ethan Ratke’s missed field goal.
“They run a lot of Cover 2, Tampa 2,” Dylan said. “So it’s a lot of zone coverage and my coaches told me all week to find the open holes, sit it down and Ben is going to find me.”
He added it was great for him and his brother to consistently help the Dukes on Saturday.
“We kind of dreamt about this as kids,” Dylan said, “playing in the national championship together. Obviously, it hurts going down, but I was really happy for him. We went through a lot this past year, a lot of ups and downs and I was just so blessed to be in the position that I’m in and couldn’t be happier for him.”
The Stapletons and DiNucci have been roommates since DiNucci arrived from Pittsburgh prior to the 2018 season.
Riley said DiNucci, who threw for 204 yards and two touchdowns to go along with an interception, played well against NDSU.
“Ben’s a heck of a quarterback,” Riley said. “And the coaching staff did a great job of calling out play calls today. And just didn’t execute enough, though, but Ben is a heck of a quarterback and it was an honor to play with him.”
• JMU is now 2-2 in national championship games.
• The Dukes are 1-3 all-time against North Dakota State.
•The Bison improved to 16-0, becoming the first college team to finish 16-0 since Yale did it in 1894.
• Afterward, Cignetti acknowledged the memorable games, including Saturday’s title game, JMU and NDSU have played in over the last few years and how it impacts the two programs. “They’ve been titanic, monumental-type games,” Cignetti said. “You’re going out there and beating them in their only playoff loss in ‘16. There’s the ‘17 national championship and here we are, ‘19 national championship. And they obviously have a great tradition, have kept it going a long time, have tremendous resources. And we feel like we’re in the same position. … So you saw the two best teams in the country square off today and they were the better team.”
• North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance became the first rusher to go for more than 150 yards against the Dukes since former Elon running back Malcolm Summers did it on Oct. 6, 2018. Summers’ coach then was Cignetti, who left Elon for JMU last offseason.
• Lance’s most important play came on the third-and-23 when he rushed for 44 yards into the end zone for a touchdown. He said, “In my head, I was thinking third-and-23, maybe get half, get in better field position for [NDSU kicker Jake Reinholz].”
• The Dukes used a package they haven’t used all season long by lining up redshirt sophomore quarterback Gage Moloney as a wildcat quarterback and senior quarterback Ben DiNucci up as a wide receiver. Moloney said the coaches installed the scheme two weeks ago when the team returned to practice following their Christmas break. “We just thought giving them a different look would change it up a little bit,” he said. Moloney rushed for eight yards on two carries out of the formation, but JMU also failed on its trick-play try out of the set when Moloney threw behind the line of scrimmage to DiNucci, who was looking to throw deep but was tackled for a loss of eight yards. “Obviously, didn’t work,” Cignetti said of the failed double pass. “We’ll put that one away for a long time.”