Fighting Hawks set to tangle with third-seeded Dukes for semifinal spot
Expect a physical rumble when perennial FCS heavyweight James Madison welcomes an upstart North Dakota team into Bridgeforth Stadium on Sunday in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
The Dukes, ranked atop the polls for much of the regular season, were surprisingly slotted at No. 3 in the playoff bracket. That pit the 2019 season's national runners-up against a strong first-round opponent in Southern Conference champion VMI. James Madison built an early lead thanks in part to a history-making, 99-yard touchdown run from Jawon Hamilton then held on after a lackluster second half.
North Dakota, playing its first game in more than a month due to COVID-19 protocols, pummeled Missouri Valley Football Conference counterpart Missouri State, 44-10. Showing no rust from its time off, North Dakota looked capable of making a run to Frisco. In the Fighting Hawks' way is a program well accustomed to playing in the national championship game, having done so three times since 2016.
FCS Playoffs Quarterfinal: North Dakota at James Madison
Kickoff: Sunday, May 2 at 6 p.m. ET
Spread: James Madison -2.5
When North Dakota Has the Ball
One of this season's breakout stars has been North Dakota running back Otis Weah. Weah's ripped off 7.1 yards per carry and eight touchdowns en route to first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference recognition. But while Weah has been a major home-run threat, there's plenty more to the Fighting Hawks offense.
Quarterback Tommy Schuster is one of the nation's most accurate passers, completing better than 66 percent of his attempts, and has spread the ball effectively among a variety of targets. Six Fighting Hawks have made at least 10 receptions on the season, including rangy Garett Maag. The 6-foot-4 Maag presents a unique challenge to James Madison's talented secondary, using his size to create big-play opportunities.
James Madison's flourished in its first two seasons under head coach Curt Cignetti, relying on a stifling defensive approach reflective of Cignetti's time on Nick Saban's early Alabama staff. VMI's air-raid attack threw James Madison somewhat off-balance in the second half last week, but the Dukes thrive against offenses reliant on the run. Defensive lineman Mike Greene is a Buck Buchanan Award finalist and equally proficient at plugging running lanes from his time playing tackle as he is getting to opposing quarterbacks now at end.
Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey is another Duke to watch. The linebacker is a ball hawk but can also drop into pass coverage effectively. With the Dukes holding opponents to fewer than 60 rushing yards per game, North Dakota may have to be a pass-first attack in order to test James Madison enough to create some rushing opportunites for Weah.
When James Madison Has the Ball
En route to the 2019 season's national championship game, James Madison overwhelmed opponents with a balanced offense that utilized multiple ball carriers and the veteran savvy of quarterback Ben DiNucci. DiNucci's departure for the NFL left a sizable gap, and early into the spring 2021 campaign, replacement Cole Johnson struggled filling it to such a degree that Cignetti planned to start Gage Moloney before COVID-19 protocols intervened.
Johnson has been solid since recapturing the starting job, but the James Madison offense truly starts with its grounded approach. Hamilton is part of a deep rotation that also features Percy Agyei-Obese, one of the nation's top rushers in 2019. Latrele Palmer and Solomon Vanhorse are also capable options behind a young but talented offensive line.
North Dakota has been excellent defensively, holding opponents to 3.8 rushing yards per attempt and fewer than 19 points per game. Key for their pursuit of the semifinals will be its ability to generate turnovers. Johnson has been interception-prone at times, and North Dakota's defense features six different players accounting for eight picks.
Keeping Josh Navratil and Jaxson Turner away from Johnson is crucial for the James Madison offensive line to give the quarterback time to throw. His top target, Antawne Wells, is a big-time playmaker and the Duke UND needs to be most focused on slowing.
James Madison's wins have been closer than in the 2019 season, but the characteristics that carried the Dukes to Frisco, Texas, then are still readily apparent in the spring squad. The biggest issue for James Madison has been putting together a full 60 minutes, and North Dakota will make the Dukes play the entirety at full strength -- or risk bowing out in the quarterfinals.
Prediction: James Madison 30, North Dakota 21
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.