FCS Championship preview: James Madison-North Dakota State could mark changing of the guard or return of a dynasty
FRISCO, Texas — The best team of the past decade matches up with the best team of the past two years in a starpowered 2018 FCS Championship.
Defending champion and No. 1 seed James Madison (14-0) rolls into Frisco for the second-straight year on a 26-game winning streak, which is best among all three divisions of football. The Dukes face No. 2 seed North Dakota State (13-1), FCS champs for five straight seasons from 2011-15. The Dukes were the culprits in ending the Bison's championship run in last year's semifinals.
This recent history sets up a power-laden title matchup that has the chance to redefine the FCS hierarchy moving forward. Either way, the national championship trophy will be coming back to Fargo, N.D. or Harrisonburg, Va. for the seventh straight year.
Both programs share mutual respect for one another, as each coach expressed at Friday's press conferences.
"Many times you see a dropoff over time, but [NDSU coach Chris Klieman] has done a great job keeping that program at that championship level, and that takes a lot," JMU coach Mike Houston said. "He and his staff have done a great job, and they do it in a first-class manner. He and I have a great relationship, and I respect him greatly."
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for how JMU does it — how they play defense, how they run the football," Klieman added. "Now, if this continues on, and God willing, we continue to both have great programs, maybe [a rivalry] will potentially happen. Two times, not quite, but maybe down the line."
Quarterback Bryan Schor (33 total touchdowns) leads the Dukes' eighth-ranked scoring offense (35.9 points per game) that's gotten a major boost from running back Marcus Marshall and wide receiver Riley Stapleton this postseason.
Marshall, a Georgia Tech transfer, rushed for a season-high 203 yards in the semifinals against South Dakota State and has four touchdowns in three playoff games. Stapleton, who will start opposite of an active John Miller (lower leg injury), has 16 catches and three touchdowns this postseason.
“This matchup is exciting for the rest of the country, but it's exciting for us as well," Schor said at Thursday's media day. "People picked us to be the best team this year, and people picked them to be the best this season. Having the opportunity to play each other — it feels right.”
Meanwhile, the Bison have run wild with a deep running back corps that's withstood injuries, led by 1,186-yard rusher Bruce Anderson. The junior comes off a five-touchdown performance in the semifinals against Sam Houston State. NDSU ranks fourth in the nation with 282.1 rushing yards per game.
Under center for the Bison will be Easton Stick (39 total touchdowns, 62.4 completion percentage). The junior will get his first national title game start of his career despite leading the Bison to Frisco in 2015. That year, Stick was 8-0 in place of an injured Carson Wentz but did not appear in NDSU's championship win.
"It was a really good team in 2015, and to me, it's probably a little more special this year just because of the relationships that I have with the senior class," Stick said. "It's a big class and a group that's meant a lot to our program. [I'm] so excited for an opportunity to compete with those guys one more time."
Both coaches agree that Saturday's game at Toyota Stadium, slated for noon ET kickoff, should come down to defense. The Dukes boast the FCS' top defense at 10.7 points allowed per game while the Bison rank second (11.5).
Andrew Ankrah (8.5 sacks) headlines JMU's stout defensive line while the deep secondary has caused havoc all year for opposing quarterbacks. The Dukes broke an FCS single-season record with 43 takeaways this year.
"They're always on the same page. They communicate really well together. You can tell they play a lot of snaps," Stick said of JMU's secondary. "They do a really good job of rotating guys, the two corner spots and guys playing nickel and things like that. It's a really talented group, and we definitely have our hands full."
Linebackers Chris Board, Nick DeLuca and Jabril Cox stand out among NDSU's defensive unit, combining for 24.5 sacks. DeLuca is second on the team in tackles (70) in his senior season while the freshman Cox leads the way with 72 despite only becoming a starter midseason.
As for the Bison's secondary, Klieman said the statuses of injured cornerbacks Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush will be "game-time decisions."
"When you turn on the film, you see guys flying around, guys making plays, and guys not making mistakes," Schor said about the NDSU defense. "You don't see a big play because someone's out of position or they blew a coverage."
Last year's semifinals meeting ended in a 27-17 Dukes victory in Fargo with JMU scoring 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. That loss still lingers among many Bison players.
"We're looking to take our title back," NDSU safety Tre Dempsey said.