FRISCO, Texas (STATS) – Given North Dakota State’s success as an FCS dynasty, it’s somewhat surprising the Bison are a slight underdog as they prepare to battle James Madison in the national championship game on Saturday.
The truth is, James Madison is the program that has best risen to the Bison’s level while the latter has captured seven of the last national titles and gone 33-1 in the playoffs since 2011.
The Dukes handed North Dakota State the lone loss – 27-17 in the 2016 semifinals – and came close to repeating as national champion before falling 17-13 to the Bison in the 2017 title game.
The Dukes (14-1) – second-ranked all season while stalking their “rival” in the national polls – are drawing off the experience of past matchups.
“Absolutely,” fifth-year senior cornerback Rashad Robinson said Thursday at Toyota Stadium. “A lot of younger guys don’t realize you don’t play a team like North Dakota State very often – their style of play. So a lot of older guys are trying to preach to the younger guys what type of game it’s going to be Saturday, and try to get mentally focused for it.”
“Having played them before, we have a good idea of what they’re going to probably bring to the table,” said defensive end Ron’Dell Carter, the CAA defensive player of the year and a finalist for the STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award. “We obviously know the type of stuff that they’ve been doing over the last few years. They haven’t changed; they’re doing the same things for years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
While Saturday makes it three meetings in the last four postseasons, last season’s missed opportunity to face North Dakota State has factored into the Dukes’ experienced squad returning to Frisco. They lost to Colgate in the second round, nixing a chance to go to the Fargodome – where they won the 2016 game – for a quarterfinal-round showdown.
“Going out the way we did left a bad taste in our mouths,” said center Mac Patrick, a three-year starter. “Sitting in your locker room and watching your senior guys, your friends, crying – because that’s their last game – that’s not something you want. Every senior says you want to go out on top. We’ve been blessed enough to have that chance this weekend.”
The Colgate loss was the Dukes’ last game under coach Mike Houston, who went 37-6 before he left to become East Carolina’s coach.
Curt Cignetti stepped across the conference from Elon to take over in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and has pushed all the right buttons, putting a stamp of disciplined play on the program while keeping a strong run game and strong run defense as priorities.
“We have really good resources,” Cignetti said, “really good facilities, a very strong brand, strong commitment from our administration, great fan base and a good recruiting area. Also, excellent tradition.
“I think there’s steps we can take here. This is three out of the last four for us. Our kids, there’s a championship culture in our program – they love to compete, they love to practice, they expect to win championships and they expect to be in this game and they’re disappointed if they’re not. But also get the result in this game.”
James Madison, a one- to two-point favorite over the Bison, won the 2004 national title against Montana in addition to beating Youngstown State in 2016. The Dukes are seeking to become the fifth program with at least three titles, joining North Dakota State (seven), Georgia Southern (six), Youngstown State (four) and Appalachian State (three).