There will be a new FCS champion for the first time in six years in the wake of five-time defending title holder North Dakota State’s semifinals loss two weeks ago. With the end of the Bison’s incredible run comes a chance for fresh faces to take hold of the sport’s most coveted prize.
Get to know the program that knocked off the Bison, James Madison, as the Dukes prepare for Saturday’s FCS championship game against Youngstown State in Frisco, Texas.
How they got here: James Madison finished a spectacular regular season with an 11-1 record and a CAA crown. The Dukes’ lone loss came in Week 3 to the FBS’ North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Since that defeat, JMU has rattled off 11 consecutive wins with an average margin of victory of 27 points (including playoffs). In the playoffs, the No. 4 seed Dukes topped New Hampshire, No. 5 Sam Houston State and No. 1 North Dakota State to punch a ticket to Frisco.
Best win: Look no further than that semifinals meeting in Fargo for JMU’s win of the year so far. The 27-17 victory ended a streak of 22 straight playoff victories for the Bison.
“I don't know if anybody can ever prepare for what you face going into the Fargo Dome with the noise and the intelligence of their fans to use the noise to try to impact the game, which I think certainly they do,” JMU coach Mike Houston said in his Dec. 29 teleconference.
“Certainly, I think that that experience, the thing that would win them towards having success on the 7th, would be just that no matter what the factors, no matter what the outside distractions or things around them, they have got to focus on what's taking place on the field.”
The Dukes picked up two other signature wins in the regular season, coming in consecutive weeks in November, when they bested both No. 6 Richmond and No. 9 Villanova on the road.
Last FCS title: The Dukes’ last and only national championship came in 2004 when James Madison topped Montana 31-21 under the direction of coach Mickey Matthews.
Who’s in charge: Houston wasted little time in building up JMU as a national contender, getting the Dukes to the title game in his first season at the helm. The North Carolina native came over from The Citadel, where he coached the Bulldogs from 2014-15 to a 14-11 record and a 2015 playoff berth.
Houston said the biggest change he’s seen since day one on the job has been more cohesion and unity in what he said was once a “divided locker room.”
“They have changed themselves completely on the field. We are a different style of team from what they have been in the last couple of years,” Houston said. “And really, I do credit (former coach Mickey Matthews) and some of the players that he brought in his last year because those guys, those are the leaders of the football team and those are the ones that I'm the most proud of.”
Offensive player to watch: A nation-high seven Dukes were selected as HERO Sports FCS All-Americans, so it’s tough to pick one player to watch from a deep pool of talent.
But perhaps the biggest star on the offensive side of the ball is senior running back Khalid Abdullah. The Virginia native has rushed for 1,708 yards and an FCS-best 20 touchdowns this season. In his last outing against NDSU, Abdullah tallied 235 offensive yards and a pair of touchdowns to pave way for the upset.
Youngstown State’s stingy defense has only allowed 10 rushing touchdowns this year, but the unit will have a lot to handle with Abdullah in the backfield.
Defensive player to watch:
For all the praise JMU’s explosive offense deservedly draws, its defense isn’t too shabby either. And that starts with the play of its talented secondary.
Leading the back group is redshirt senior corner back Taylor Reynolds, who has two interceptions this year to go along with 14 passes defended.
As a unit, the Dukes are tied for first in the FCS with 20 interceptions and rank ninth in turnover margin (+15). While much of JMU’s attention on defense will be focused on stopping the dynamic duo of running backs Jody Webb and Tevin McCaster, Reynolds and the rest of the secondary’s play in one-on-one situations will be huge.
Keys to the game:
1.) Contain Jody Webb: Webb does everything for the Penguins as their most dangerous weapon – handling kickoffs, rushing out of the backfield and catching passes.
“He's got the ability to make a difference in the ballgame in a matter of one snap,” Houston said. “We've got to do a great job to try to keep him from getting going, whether it's running the ball or catching the ball out of the backfield or whatever. He's certainly a dynamic playmaker.”
In YSU’s semifinals win over Eastern Washington, Webb combined for 218 offensive yards. The week before against Wofford, his total was 331. Whether it’s kicking the ball away from him or stacking the box when he’s the tailback, the Dukes can’t let Webb beat them.
2.) Bryan Schor’s ability to extend plays: JMU’s quarterback Bryan Schor has a knack for keeping plays alive when facing heat in the pocket. Not only can he scramble and make something out of nothing, but that something is often for a huge gain.
Schor’s ability to roll out – sometimes improvise – and connect on deep strikes downfield was a valuable asset for the Dukes especially against the strong NDSU defensive front in the semifinals. He’ll see more of the same against a YSU unit that includes Derek Rivers (14 sacks) and Avery Moss (10).
That duo has the potential to wreak havoc against any offensive line, so when the protection breaks down, Schor must continue to make his great escapes.
3.) Win on special teams: Special teams has been a strength all season for JMU, as three different players have returned punts for touchdowns to go along with one 86-yard kickoff return score.
Rashard Davis is the biggest threat with four of those six punt return touchdowns on just 14 attempts.
"Special teams and turnovers are the most critical things in this game."— JMU Football (@JMUFootball) January 3, 2017
JMU has 6 PR for TD and is a top-10 team in turnover margin.
“Obviously they are well-schooled in that area, and so you know, we've got to be prepared to match their effort, their intensity and their level of execution,” YSU coach Bo Pelini said in his teleconference. “Because they are going to stress you.”
Although it seemed the Dukes could score at will at times this season, the Penguins will boast one of the toughest defenses they’ve seen this year. So a big return or two on special teams may go a long way in deciding the outcome.
Other stats to know: James Madison is second in the FCS in points per game with 48… JMU has converted on 51.4 percent of their third downs, good for fourth in the nation. YSU’s defense has held opponents to a respectable 33.8 percent mark… JMU only allows 1.29 sacks per game. That’ll be tested against the Penguins’ 3.13 per game… Three Dukes receivers have totaled at least 500 receiving yards this season. Davis (478) can become the fourth in a balanced corps… After missing the regular season finale against Elon, Schor has returned to post a 10:3 touchdown-to-turnover ratio this playoffs.