Many FCS fans have been anticipating a rematch between James Madison and North Dakota State ever since the Dukes ended the Bison’s five-year run as the national champion in last year’s semifinals.
Wins in semis this weekend by the two programs that have won the last six titles — JMU (2016) and NDSU (2011-15) — means the battle of the titans will come to fruition in the FCS championship game on Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas.
But hold on a minute, surging South Dakota State says. The Jackrabbits took down North Dakota State in October and are talented enough — especially on the offensive end — to beat James Madison as well on Saturday.
FCS Semifinal: No. 5 South Dakota State (11-2) at No. 1 James Madison (13-0)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 16 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bridgeforth Stadium/Zane Showker Field (Harrisonburg, Va.)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Three Things to Watch
1. Dukes need the right offense
James Madison doesn’t have an offense that rolls up 50-point games left and right. Maybe if No. 1 tailback Cardon Johnson hadn’t suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game, but this year’s team has been more defensive-oriented.
The CAA Football champion Dukes should be able to run the ball effectively with Trai Sharp, who’s slumped in the playoffs, and Marcus Marshall, who picked up the slack against Weber State in the quarterfinals, and quarterback Bryan Schor on scrambles. But the offense has to motor at a high level in case it has to match touchdowns with South Dakota State — the No. 3 scoring team (38.8 ppg) in the FCS.
2. Jackrabbits on the run make for a balanced offense
South Dakota State is known for its three-pronged passing attack of quarterback Taryn Christion and NFL-bound pass catchers Dallas Goedert (tight end) and Jake Wieneke (wide receiver). But the Jackrabbits have averaged more than 203 rushing yards in their school-record 11 wins and only 58.5 in their two losses, so they need balance — perhaps using efficient passing to set up the run.
While Christion and running backs Brady Mengarelli, Mikey Daniel and Isaac Wallace give SDSU a number of options, what’s working against them is a James Madison defense that ranks No. 6 in the FCS against the run, allowing fewer than 85 rushing yards a game. With Goedert coming off a lower-leg injury in the Jackrabbits’ quarterfinal-round rout of New Hampshire, having a diverse attack is even more important.
3. All the pressure is on the defending champs
With James Madison, there’s no escaping this season has been “national title repeat or bust.” Having dominated in the regular season — the Dukes didn’t trail in the fourth quarter of a game — they were fortunate in the quarterfinals to overcome two late deficits before edging Weber State, 31-28, on Ethan Ratke’s game-ending, 46-yard field goal.
The farther South Dakota State pushes into this first-ever meeting with the threat of an upset, the more the Dukes will feel the pressure of the moment. They played to win when challenged by Weber State and will need the same mentality against a Jackrabbits team that some have considered the third-strongest in the FCS despite two slips in their Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule.
James Madison has won 25 straight games under second-year head coach Mike Houston for the second-longest streak in FCS history behind North Dakota State’s 33 in a row from 2012-14. While the Dukes showed vulnerability in the quarterfinals, they’re at home, they’ve been more consistent than South Dakota State and their defense has been extraordinary almost all season.
Head coach John Stiegelmeier and the Jackrabbits have to take the game to the Dukes the way they did in beating North Dakota State, 33-21, earlier this season. SDSU's passing attack just might keep the Dukes’ superb secondary on its heels. During a seven-game winning streak, the Jackrabbit have scored on 30 of 31 possessions that have reached their opponent’s red zone, although it’s an area James Madison has defended well this year.
Prediction: James Madison 27, South Dakota State 21
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo courtesy of James Madison University Athletics; Jake Wieneke photo courtesy of SDSU Athletics)