For the first time since 2011, the top two seeds in the FCS bracket met in the national championship game. And the matchup sure lived up to the hype Saturday afternoon at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
North Dakota State returned to the top of the FCS with its sixth national title in seven years. The Bison defeated No. 1 seed and defending champion James Madison 17-13 in a defensive struggle.
Easton Stick was named Most Outstanding Player of the game with 130 passing yards, 35 rushing yards and a touchdown pass in his first career national championship start.
North Dakota State clinched the victory after forcing a JMU turnover on downs on the 25-yard line with 58 seconds left. With four seconds left in the game, Stick took the shotgun snap and scrambled backwards 27 yards before sliding as time expired.
"[Stick] played like a veteran... He and I went back and forth on what to do with that four seconds," NDSU coach Chris Klieman said of the final play. "He just goes, 'Coach, don't worry. There will be no time left on the clock. Trust me. There will be no time left on the clock.'"
The Bison took a 17-6 lead into halftime thanks to a 3-yard touchdown run from Bruce Anderson and a 50-yard touchdown strike from Stick to Darrius Shepherd. It was Shepherd's first time crossing the end zone this season.
"It was something we put in right away when we were looking at stuff. Got the coverage that we wanted, and really it was all on Darrius running away from that back side safety," Stick said of the second quarter touchdown. "Offensive line protected really well. Lance [Dunn] sold the fake well. Darrius was able to run underneath and get us in the end zone, and that was a huge play for us.
The Dukes struck back in the third quarter with a 1-yard touchdown run from Marcus Marshall to trim NDSU's lead to four. The Dukes' momentum rose again in the fourth quarter thanks to a pair of special teams sparks.
With 4:37 remaining in regulation, Simeyon Robinson blocked an attempted NDSU field goal to keep the deficit to four. Later on the ensuing drive, facing a fourth down with nine yards to go, JMU punter Harry O'Kelly faked a punt picked up 24 yards on the ground to move the chains.
But the NDSU defense wasn't rattled. Six plays later, the Bison put heavy pressure on Schor on fourth and 16 to force a desperation heave to the end zone that fell to the ground and essentially clinched the win.
"Most important thing to us is don't flinch," said NDSU cornerback Marquise Bridges, who had an interception on Saturday. "We're going to go out there and do the same thing we've done all game. Just compete. That's all we had to do. When that ball hit the ground, it felt great."
For JMU, the loss ends what was a nation-best 26-game win streak extending back to last season.
"Hats off to North Dakota State today. They made the plays, and we made too many mistakes," JMU coach Mike Houston said. "That's what it boils down to. But they deserve to hoist the trophy out there, and we have a great deal of respect for them."
The Bison's sixth title in program history matches Georgia Southern for most in FCS history.