James Madison opened up at No. 11 in this year’s preseason FCS coaches poll – below four teams that didn’t end up qualifying for the playoffs. Meanwhile, about five hours up the road in northeastern Ohio, Youngstown State didn’t even crack the top 25 to kick off 2016.
Yet, here these two programs are in Frisco, Texas, with a chance to compete for the national championship on Saturday.
James Madison will play for its first title since 2004 behind a top-flight offense and underrated defense. The Dukes come into the title game fresh of their upset win in the semifinals over five-time defending champion North Dakota State. For the unseeded Penguins, they will have a shot at title No. 5 in program history.
According to each coach, their trips to Frisco come as no surprise. Rather, they attribute their postseason success to the ability to endure challenging regular season schedules and getting hot at the right time.
“You have two teams from hands down, the two best conferences in the nation, so it does not surprise me,” JMU coach Mike Houston said in a Dec. 29 teleconference. “We fully expected to have an opportunity to do this and I'm sure Youngstown State did, as well.”
“One thing about this tournament is you've got to earn your way there. Everybody has their shot,” YSU coach Bo Pelini added. “You've got to make the plays when it counts, and I think both teams have shown the ability to do that, and it's a testament to the kids on both sides. You've got to have character and you've got to have a work ethic. There's a lot of things that go into it.”
As the weather gets colder – even in Texas, where game-time temperatures are expected to be in the 30s – these two teams have continued to heat up. The Penguins have won six straight heading into the season finale while the Dukes are on an 11-game tear.
YSU clinched its spot in the title game in the most dramatic of fashions. Facing a four-point deficit from a goal-to-go scenario with six seconds left on the clock against No. 2 seed Eastern Washington, Hunter Wells delivered a perfect strike that tight end Kevin Rader hauled in with one hand.
Rader pinned the throw to a defender’s back for the game-winning touchdown and possibly the play of the year.
“That play was just an amazing play by an amazing guy. It should have been a jump ball the way it happened – but at the same time, it wasn’t,” YSU tailback Jody Webb said at Thursday’s Media Day. “He could have easily given up… It’s a team game but Kevin Rader made that play. He made that play for us.”
That thrilling finish came one day after JMU picked up a big statement win over the Bison to end an unprecedented run of dominance.
Dukes center Matt Frank said that win in a hostile Fargo Dome should serve as good preparation for playing on a national title stage.
“It’s something that coach Houston has preached to us about, not letting the stage get too big. I think we played in one of the biggest ones you can [in Fargo],” Frank said. “Just pushing through adversity there and coming out with a win will help us against a formidable opponent here.”
While both teams are sound on both sides of the ball, it’s likely to be an intriguing matchup between JMU’s second-highest scoring offense in the FCS and a stingy YSU defense that boasts two of the best defensive ends in the country.
Khalid Abdullah paces the Dukes offense as the nation’s leader in rushing touchdowns (20) while quarterback Bryan Schor has significantly improved in his junior year under center en route to being named CAA offensive player of the year.
“My confidence has grown a lot this season and that comes straight from the rest of the players. We have very gifted players on our team and I’m very confident that they’re going to make plays for me,” Schor said. “So when I throw a ball up on a deep ball or something, just having the faith that those guys are going to go up and make plays is what’s helped me bring my game up a level.”
Schor and his offensive line will be tested by the Penguins’ deep front, led by senior defensive ends Derek Rivers (14 sacks) and Avery Moss (10).
“When you first flip on the film, the thing you notice right off the bat is just how very, very good they are up front,” Houston said. “They have two long, extremely athletic, talented defensive ends that are great against the run and can do a great job rushing the passer.”
Very few teams have succeeded in slowing JMU’s offense down this year but Rivers believes the Penguins have the talent up front to do so.
“We just have to play our game,” Rivers said. “We’ve been playing running quarterbacks all year so just add another one to the list.”
Either way Saturday’s contest goes, there will be a new name etched on the FCS Football Championship Trophy for the first time in six seasons. And simply just getting to Frisco won't be enough for either side.
“It’s something that every player dreams about, getting to that national level and saying you are the best in that division,” JMU linebacker Gage Steele said. “As a senior with all that we’ve gone through as a team, it’s truly an awesome story and something that’s definitely going to be talked about later in life.”
“We didn’t come here for no reason,” Webb said.