Less than a few hours away from kickoff, the no. 4 seeded James Madison Dukes out of the CAA take on the 5-time champion, North Dakota State Bison, out of the Mountain Valley Conference for this year’s chance at the national championship game. The match is set up 1358 miles away from JMU’s Harrisonburg (VA) at the “Fargodome”, the Bison’s heated indoor facility tucked away in Fargo, North Dakota.
James Madison comes into the matchup with an unblemished conference record and only a single 56-28 loss against the ACC’s UNC Tar Heels, which boasted a high-powered spread attack led by future 1st round pick, QB Mitch Trubisky. Under first-year head coach, Mike Houston, the Dukes overcame much adversity in their 2016 campaign. Notably, playing 4 CAA conference games against opponents coming off a bye week. This was highlighted by a gutsy 20-7 win over the number 1 nationally ranked defense in the Wildcats of Villanova under the shoulders of true freshman quarterback, Cole Johnson. Johnson, who was highly recruited out of the Viginia Beach area, was thrusted into the lineup after Bryan Schor went down with an injury during the start of the second quarter. With big performances needed and expected by a veteran offensive line, a bevy of skill players and a fast, disciplined and opportunistic defense, you can tell this is a revamped JMU program poised to make history this evening.
Here’s a quick look at JMU’s key players in this 2016 national semi-final matchup:
Bryan Schor, Quarterback – The 2016 CAA Offensive Player of the Year had big shoes to fill taking the place of all-world QB Vad Lee, but one thing was certain, he understood the importance of playing his game and not trying to impersonate Vad Lee’s rise to stardom. With 34 TDs (24 passing, 10 rushing) this season, Bryan Schor will have his hands full against a big, physical, Bison defense. Fortunately, Schor has a veteran offensive line and will be accompanied by a number of quality receivers, tight ends and running backs, to lean on for support. Schor’s ability to make the right decision in JMU’s “run-pass-option” offense will be important for the Dukes to come out on top.
Khalid Abdullah, Running Back – James Madison’s starting running back from Virginia Beach has always had a chip on his shoulder. Despite leading the nation in rushing touchdowns (20) and having over 1500 yards on the ground, Abdullah was named 2nd team AP All-American behind Fordham’s Chase Edmonds and NC A&T’s Tarik Cohen – neither playing for a chance at the national title this weekend. JMU was Khalid’s only D1 offer coming out of high school but will likely graduate as one of the program’s greatest if not, the greatest running back to ever sport the purple and gold. NDSU should expect a heavy dose of aggressive running from Abdullah a la the style of Minnesota Viking’s Adrian Peterson, to help boost JMU’s pass game. Also, if his running style doesn’t impress you enough, don’t sleep on Abdullah’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and his ability to pass protect – 2 unique skillsets that place Abdullah among the nation’s elite.
Aaron Stinnie, Left Tackle – Former defensive tackle turned blind-side extraordinaire has been a pleasant surprise for Mike Houston and his offensive staff. The athletic, first-team all CAA lineman from nearby Charlottesville (VA) has nimble feet; a big frame and long arms to protect Bryan Schor from incoming pass rushers. He will have the privilege of matching up against NDSU’s stud defensive end, Greg Menard, who leads the team with 10.5 sacks, garnering 3rd team All-American honors. With a veteran led offensive line, highlighted by players like guard Matt Frank controlling the interior, and center Kyle Rigney who will have to make key blocking calls, JMU will look to match NDSU’s physicality on the line of scrimmage. In the words of head coach, Mike Houston, “If you’re going to have any chance at beating them, you’re going to have to combat their physicality”.
JMU’s Defensive Tackles – Defensive line coach, Jeff Hanson, knew he had his hands full depth-wise on the defensive line coming into this season. In particular, the defensive tackle position was one area that grew thin under the “purge” of Everett Withers and the graduation of all-conference tackle, Alex Mosley. Bolstered this past offseason by 3 highly recruited freshmen, the 2016 Dukes are relying on juniors Simeyon Robinson, Cornell Urquhart and senior Martez Stone to hold down the fort until the freshmen prove they’re ready to contribute. All 3 players have played key roles and make up the interior rotation for JMU’s 4-2-5 defense and all 3 will need to continue their exceptional play tonight. Since the second half of the Richmond/JMU showdown on November 5th, the defensive unit, led by Coach Hanson’s defensive line has been on fire. All 3 players need to continue their impressive play as they go up against a mauling Bison offensive line, which averages 312 pounds all-around, led by the 6’4 331 pound Zach Johnson at left guard.
Jordan Brown, Safety – After being recruited by former JMU head coach, Mickey Matthews, as a high school quarterback, Jordan Brown always had the athleticism and speed to compete at a high level. Starting at cornerback last year for Everett Withers, Brown has made a fantastic transition to the rover safety position in defensive coordinator, Bob Trott’s, scheme. With the likelihood of JMU’s defensive linemen and linebackers filling gaps and taking on offensive linemen, Jordan Brown’s ability to control the alley and contain “spilling” run plays will be vital for the Dukes’ success. At 6’2 and over 205 pounds, Brown not only has the speed to keep up with receivers, he doesn’t hesitate to get his hands dirty in the run game as well. Notably, Brown has demonstrated impressive versatility, highlighted by his timely QB pressures on Sam Houston’s All-American, Jeremiah Briscoe, but also his ability to play leverage against the pass and run versus teams like SMU, UNH, Delaware and Villanova which all have distinct styles of offensive-play.
Gage Steele, Linebacker – NDSU’s offense is known for their constant pre-snap motions to take advantage of mismatches and it will be Gage Steele’s, the 4 year starter out of Front Royal (VA), responsibility to make sure his defense is lined up correctly. An old school downhill force with a name that matches, Steele looks like a player the Bison would love to have on their side and has been a key cog in Bob Trott’s scheme. Trott’s focus this offseason was to install a defense designed to have all 11 players run to the ball and let “athletes be athletes”. No other player has taken full advantage of the read and run scheme than Gage himself. Only Maine, William & Mary and some would say, Villanova, run a similar scheme as NDSU with a traditional fullback and Steele will have to glean from his experiences and his 240 pound frame to come away victorious over the Bison. It will be imperative for Gage to make sure he makes the right line checks as well as clean up any runnings back that head his direction.
All in all, there’s a lot to take away from this game: the fact JMU’s loss to NDSU in 2011 kick-started the 5 straight national title streak, or the special teams chess match in NDSU’s punter Jackson Koonce and how he handles JMU’s all-American returner, Rashard Davis, who already has returned 4 touchdowns this season, or the fact that NDSU has not come across a more complete team like JMU since… maybe ever.
This game makes up what we all love about college football. 2 rabid fan bases rich in tradition, championships and success…it’s Friday Night Lights again for the Dukes, the lone football game on national television and kickoff is set for 7PM EST.
My prediction? The James Madison Dukes, in the all-white storm trooper unis, ending the Bison streak in the “Dome Star”: 37-24.