Vegas listed James Madison as a 1-point favorite entering Saturday’s FCS National Championship, and after the first drive of the game it seemed the boys in the desert knew something the rest of us didn’t. The Dukes accepted the ball to open the game and promptly rolled 86 yards in 17 plays, converting three third downs and consuming half the first quarter clock to take a 7-0 lead on a 5-yard toss from Ben DiNucci to Riley Stapleton.
And then the rest of the game happened.
North Dakota State rolled over the final 52 minutes of the game, outscoring JMU 28-13 from that point forward to book its eighth national championship in nine years, 28-20.
After the opening score, the Bison responded with an 8-play, 70-yard touchdown march of their own, then took the lead on a reverse where North Dakota State showed a Philly Special but Phoenix Sproles faked the handoff and kept the ball on a reverse, racing 38 yards untouched for a score.
The key play in the game came at the 8:23 mark of the second quarter. Trailing 14-10 without a stop to that point, an inadvertent face mask penalty by JMU defensive end Ron’Dell Carter turned a 3rd-and-20 inside NDSU’s own 10-yard line into a 1st-and-10 at the 25. Given new life, the Bison marched to the Dukes’ 20 when they appeared to settle for a field goal, but instead holder James Hendricks kept the ball and scampered 20 yards for a touchdown, putting the Bison up 21-10 with 3:47 left in the first half.
Bison quarterback Trey Lance was simply too athletic for the Dukes’ defense. Though he was just 6-of-10 for 72 yards through the air, Lance carried 30 times for 166 yards and a touchdown, a 44-yard dash that seemingly put the game on ice, giving NDSU a 28-13 lead with 14:50 left in the game. As a team, North Dakota State rushed for 281 yards and four touchdowns on 45 carries.
James Madison (14-2) finally found the end zone again at the 6:55 mark of the fourth quarter — more than three quarters after their last touchdown — on another 5-yard toss from DiNucci to Stapleton, a play that was made possible when DiNucci put his head down (literally) and picked up six yards on a do-or-die 4th-and-6 from the NDSU 11 two plays earlier.
North Dakota State killed 4:04 of the remaining seven minutes with its constantly churning ground game, but could not kill it all. After a penalty set NDSU up with a 3rd-and-9 at the JMU 44, Lance gained seven yards on a quarterback draw, and then head coach Matt Entz called Lance’s number again on 4th-and-2, but he was stuffed at the Dukes’ 36 with 2:51 to go, giving James Madison the ball and ample time to force overtime.
The Dukes survived a sack, converted a 4th-and-3 and moved into the Bison red zone on a brilliant 22-yard catch by Stapleton. A pair of NDSU penalties gave JMU a 1st-and-goal at the 3 with eight seconds left, but DiNucci’s pass was intercepted by Hendricks to seal North Dakota State’s third consecutive national championship and its 37th straight win.
The win pushed NDSU to an astounding 128-8 since the beginning of the 2011 season, and an even more astounding 34-1 in playoff games. The one loss came to this same James Madison program, in the Fargodome in the 2016 FCS semifinals en route to a JMU national title. North Dakota State has now avenged that loss twice; the Bison defeated JMU 17-13 in the title game the following year, then doubled up on Saturday.
North Dakota State is the first Division I team since Yale in 1894 to record a 16-0 season. And here’s the best news of all for Bison Nation and the opposite for the remainder of FCS: Lance is a freshman.