FRISCO, Texas – The lingering wait is over for these Dukes.
Festered feelings since June, last winter or even two seasons ago will rid themselves when the football is booted on Saturday at noon at Toyota Stadium and the anticipated bout for the FCS crown between second-seeded James Madison (14-1) and No. 1-seed North Dakota State (15-0) begins.
“All the hard work we’ve put in since the summer,” JMU senior wide receiver Brandon Polk said, “it’s paying off that we’re finally here in the national championship and you can’t ask for anything better.”
For Polk, a Penn State transfer, it’s the chance to cap his career with a title just like it is for Dukes senior safety Adam Smith, who was part of the 2016 national championship-winning team.
That squad then returned to the title game but fell short in a 17-13 loss to the same Bison in the following campaign, and Smith was a first-year starter for the group that failed to reach Frisco last season.
“We have some unfinished business,” Smith said. “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, so I think that we’re taking that approach and understanding that we need to be the best we can be, play a complete game and just finish.”
A victory for JMU would give the Dukes their third national title in school history and second in the last four years.
Junior punt returner and safety D’Angelo Amos said he knows to lose a championship game is a gut-punch that never goes away. And Amos wowed as a freshman in that loss two years back to NDSU, with a 37-yard punt return and a 33-yard punt return to setup a field goal and JMU’s lone touchdown.
“That’s one thing that stuck with me,” Amos said. “Me as a competitor, it’s how much I feel I have to dedicate and be held responsible to my team. I feel like if I could’ve scored on one of those, we would’ve won the game and there’s no sad faces. Then our seniors that year, Aaron Stinnie, Raven Greene and Jordan Brown, I would’ve sent them out with another national championship. So to me, I took that to heart.”
JMU fifth-year senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway said: “You come here to Frisco to play on Saturday and get the win. That’s your main job, because it’s no fun if you just come here.”
NDSU has never failed in the Lone Star state.
The Bison have won all seven national championship games they’ve played in over the last decade and are aiming for the green and gold confetti to fly for the eighth time in the last nine seasons.
“I would say it’s our unspoken expectation,” NDSU senior cornerback Marquise Bridges said. “The first thing we say is we want to win the conference, which will give us a chance to make the playoffs and then it’s in the back of our mind that we’re going back to Frisco.
“But, I still remember last year after the championship was over, we were telling each other in the locker room that we’d be back and we stuck true to that promise.”
NDSU and JMU were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the national polls all season long and have almost an identical margin of victory to display their dominance in the subdivision. The Dukes won their contests by an average of 26.4 points per game and the Bison take their games by an average of 26.1 points per contes
Even throughout the postseason as JMU eliminated Monmouth, Northern Iowa and Weber State, and NDSU dispatched of Nicholls, Illinois State and Montana State alo, the two powers combined to outscore their playoff foes 201 to 65.
“We’re playing a formidable opponent,” first-year Dukes coach Curt Cignetti said, “with tremendous tradition and almost an unmatched tradition, really, when you look at them winning seven out of the last eight national championships and [36 games] in a row. … So we recognize the challenge in front of us.”
Amos said: “It’s a chance to right our wrong and it’ll be great, especially with this senior class to send them out the way we wanted to send the last senior class out whenwe were here in ’17.”
JMU senior defensive end and team captain Ron’Dell Carter added, “It’d be a match made in heaven and the cherry on top,” to beat North Dakota State and secure the championship.
The Coaches: Cignetti and NDSU coach Matt Entz did remarkably well in their first seasons in charge at their respective schools in order to positively propel the Dukes and Bison back to Texas.
Entz had never been a head coach before this year, but proved up to task by leading NDSU to a perfect mark entering Saturday. Prior to 2019, Entz served five seasons as the program’s defensive coordinator after climbing the assistant ranks from Illinois College to Winona State and Northern Iowa.
Cignetti is 81-27 in his nine seasons across three schools – JMU, Elon and Indiana University of Pennsylvania – as a head coach after previously serving as a longtime assistant for five FBS programs including Alabama.
The Quarterbacks: The FCS couldn’t have a picked a better battle of quarterbacks as the title game matches JMU senior Ben DiNucci and NDSU freshman Trey Lance.
“Both of ‘em are going to make plays for you with their feet,” Entz said. “Both do a great job of extending plays, buying time and keeping their eyes down field to find the open receiver.”
Lance has accounted for 2,714 passing yards, 934 rushing yards and 41 total touchdowns without any interceptions. DiNucci has 3,237 passing yards, 560 rushing yards and 34 total scores with five interceptions.
“I’m just super excited for the opportunity,” Lance said. “I feel prepared and ready to go.”
Series History: These two sides have only met in the postseason. Two of the three meetings came in the past three years.
North Dakota State leads the all-time series 2-1, but the lone JMU win was a 27-17 decision in the 2016 national semifinals as the Dukes became the only team ever to beat the Bison in an FCS playoff game at the FargoDome in Fargo, N.D.
NDSU won the inaugural encounter, a 2011 second-round game, 26-14.
Offense Changers: They aren’t similar in size, but 5-foot-9 Dukes wide receiver Brandon Polk and 6-foot-3 Bison wide receiver Christian Watson have had the same important impact on their offenses.
“It’s always a great asset to have a big weapon like that,” Bridges said of Polk when comparing the JMU teams of the past to the one he’ll square off with on Saturday, “who can take the top off any defense, so I think he just adds another dynamic to an explosive offense.”
“Brandon Polk is a guy, who we necessarily didn’t have on offense last year,” DiNucci said.
Polk has nine touchdowns in his last 10 games, and became only the second receiver in school history to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season this fall.
In a primarily run-first offense, Watson enters the title game with 34 grabs for 732 yards and six touchdowns.
“Just being able to be out there week by week has helped my game get to the next level,” Watson said.
Dangerous D’Angelo: Amos said he recognizes what one long punt return could do in this contest.
“It can really change the game and really win the game in a game like this,” Amos said, “with great defenses and great offenses.”
Cignetti said: “You look at the weather forecast and you’re looking at 20 to 30 mph winds, which is beyond pretty significant, so really the ability of the punt returner to catch the ball and retain possession, it’s huge.”
Amos is averaging 12.9 yards per return this season and 16.7 yards per return for his career and has five career punt-return touchdowns.
“He’s a really good football player,” Entz said. “And we need to do a great job of directional kicking, make sure we’re stacking the box to do a great job of keeping the cup and minimizing his returns because they’re explosive on punt return.”
Beware Of The Muddle Huddle: Cignetti said one detail the Dukes spent time preparing for is North Dakota State’s muddle huddle on extra-point and two-point conversions.
He doesn’t want one of those situations to cost his team the game.
“They see if you can match the numbers,” Smith said. “And if you’re able to match the numbers, they may or may not run the play. They may shift it back in and kick a field goal or shift it back in and run a play.”
Cignetti said: “They’ve done it eight or nine times, and usually [NDSU senior James Hendricks] is in the game when they do it and they have a number of different presentations. But it’s not something you see every day and your numbers have to balance out, and then you’ve got to determine who the eligibles are. It could be a pass or it could be a run, so it’s something you’ve got to be prepped for and we are.”
Don’t Be Surprised If: The team equipped to adapt the fastest on the fly wins.
“Whoever can make their adjustments the quickest,” JMU senior center Mac Patrick said, “and be efficient when they do make those adjustments.”
With three weeks of preparation, both coaching staffs have had the time to install new formations or plays, so it’s the responsibility of the players, according to Patrick, to relay what they see in the opening minutes of the game to their coaches in order to make the proper adjustments.
More Than Anything: There are no more preparations left to make and only 60 minutes to crown a champion.
“It’s time go play,” Cignetti said.