The longest active winning streak in Division I football will be on the line when defending national champion James Madison hosts Weber State on Friday night in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. The No. 1-seeded Dukes (12-0) have won 24 games in a row, tied for the second longest run in FCS history, and are two victories away from a shot at back-to-back national titles.
The Wildcats (11-2) are looking to pull off the upset and extend their winning streak to eight games. Weber State, co-champions of the Big Sky, was awarded one of the at-large playoff bids and already has beaten Western Illinois and No. 8 seed Southern Utah to advance to the quarterfinals.
The Wildcats’ 30-13 road win over the Thunderbirds avenged an earlier loss to the team they ended up sharing the Big Sky title with. Now Weber State makes the much longer trip to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to take on a team that hasn’t lost to an FCS foe since Dec. 5, 2015 (25 games).
FCS Quarterfinal: Weber State (11-2) at No. 1 James Madison (12-0)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Bridgeforth Stadium/Zane Showker Field (Harrisonburg, Va.)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Three Things to Watch
1. Mirror-image offenses and quarterbacks
On paper, the similarities between Weber State and James Madison on offense are almost eerie. Both teams are in the top 40 in the FCS in total offense and top 20 in scoring. Overall, just 16.5 yards separates them when it comes to total offense and the margins for rushing and passing offense are even smaller. And the point differential? Not even a full point per game (0.9). And the similarities don’t stop there.
Both the Wildcats and Dukes are led by senior dual-threat quarterbacks. For Weber State, Stefan Cantwell is 10th in the FCS in passing efficiency (154.7) with JMU’s Bryan Schor not too far behind (153.3, 14th). Cantwell has accounted for 30 touchdowns (23 passing, 7 rushing) while averaging 252.9 yards of total offense over his 13 games. Schor, the CAA Offensive Player of the Year in 2016, has seen a dip in his numbers but he’s still among the national leaders in total offense (231.4 ypg, 37th) and has accounted for 29 total scores (23 passing, 6 rushing) while playing in one fewer game. From a yardage standpoint, the two quarterbacks are separated by less than two yards per game (210.8 for Cantwell, 209.3 for Schor) although the Weber State signal-caller has thrown just six interceptions compared to Schor’s 11 picks with roughly the same number of attempts (315 vs. 322).
With so many similarities it will be interesting to see if either offense is able to distinguish itself from the other on Friday night.
2. But will either team be able to score?
Offensive similarities aside, yards and points may be hard to come by because of the defenses for both teams. Weber State is ranked in the top 30 in the FCS in every major category except passing, and is 10th in scoring defense (16.5 ppg). But as good as the Wildcats have been on that side of the ball; James Madison has been dominant. The Dukes are tops in points allowed (8.8 ppg) as they have surrendered as many touchdowns as games played (12). They also are second in yards allowed per game (235.1), sixth in rushing defense (84.3 ypg) and seventh in passing defense (150.8 ypg).
Both teams have been staunch against the run with Weber State holding opponents to 3.7 yards per carry (115.1 per game) and JMU really shutting down teams on the ground. The Dukes are giving up less than three yards per carry (2.5) and have allowed just four rushing touchdowns all season. Both defenses also can get after the quarterback as JMU is fourth in the nation in sacks (43, 3.6 per game) and Weber State has 37 over 13 games.
The biggest difference between these two defenses has been against the pass. The Dukes have been the FCS’ equivalent of a “no fly” zone, as opposing quarterbacks have completed just 45.4 percent of their pass attempts with only five touchdowns. And while JMU is tops in the subdivision in pass efficiency defense (78.96), Weber State isn’t too far behind (12th, 106.34) even though the Wildcats are giving up significantly more yards through the air (212.4 per game vs. 150.8) and have allowed more than twice as many touchdown passes (13).
At this point in the season, the numbers don’t lie as Friday night will feature two of the stingiest defenses in the FCS. Just the way you want it for a quarterfinal matchup, although the offenses probably aren’t too thrilled.
3. Ball security
As can be expected, teams with good defenses that are in the top 10 in points allowed per game probably excel when it comes to creating turnovers. And that is certainly the case with James Madison as the Dukes are second in the FCS in takeaways (32), including 24 interceptions, the most of any team. Weber State has 17 picks to its credit, which is tied for seventh.
Overall, both teams have done a good job of protecting the football. JMU is fifth in the FCS with a plus-16 turnover margin; the Wildcats enter this game at plus-nine (tied for seventh). In the playoffs, ball security becomes even more important as games can be decided on one possession or because of a costly turnover. Weber State in particular can’t afford any missed opportunities on offense considering how dominant the Dukes’ defense has been this season.
Weber State has already picked up two playoff wins, the most recent coming on the road against a conference rival, but James Madison is on a serious roll of its own. The defending national champions haven’t lost a game at home in two years and their defense has been shutting every one down. With so many similarities between these two offenses, the Wildcats’ attack doesn’t seem to be the one that’s capable of solving a Dukes defense that has surrendered as many touchdowns as games played (12). Weber State’s defense is no slouch, so don’t expect this to be a rout, but look for JMU to take another step towards back-to-back national titles by running its winning streak to 25 games in a row.
Prediction: James Madison 23, Weber State 10
(Top photo courtesy of James Madison University Athletics)