The "Sunday Night Football" showdown between NFC East rivals Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles could attract two of the bigger fan bases in FCS college football.
North Dakota State fans know Carson Wentz will be behind center for the Eagles. Rookie Ben DiNucci from James Madison will lead the Cowboys offense into action depending on Andy Dalton's recovery from a concussion.
North Dakota State, of course, is an FCS dynasty, having won eight of the last nine national titles. The only program to knock off the Bison in the playoffs during that time is James Madison in the 2016 semifinals. The Dukes went on to win the championship against Youngstown State and have since appeared in two more finals, losing to North Dakota State in 2017 and last season.
The title game is held each January in Frisco, Texas, at Toyota Stadium, which is about four miles away from the Cowboys' training facility. That doesn't seem quite as far as the distance DiNucci has traveled up the team's depth chart.
The Cowboys selected DiNucci in the seventh round of the April draft as the 231st overall pick, and he was viewed as a developmental quarterback, not even a certainty to make the roster. He did make it, but surely he wasn't going to play this season. Until, that is, Dak Prescott was lost to a compound right ankle fracture and dislocation on Oct. 11 and Dalton was injured in his second start last Sunday. In relief, DiNucci was 2-of-3 for 39 yards, but was under heavy pressure – sacked three times with two fumbles – and now he's being readied for a possible first career start.
"Ben's been up here relentlessly here in the last 48 hours," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday. "He's pouring everything that he personally can into this opportunity that may be in front of him. He'll get pretty much all the work this week because I don't see Andy coming back (until) at the end of the week at the earliest.
"I've been through injury situations, but at the end of the day, you have to make sure you give the football team a chance to win. You can't just play down to that (inexperience)."
Just as DiNucci finished the 2019 FCS season playing in the championship game, Wentz did that in 2014 and '15, earning the Most Outstanding Player award in North Dakota State victories. The Eagles made him the highest FCS draft selection in history – No. 2 overall in 2016 – and he's in his fifth season as their starter.
While looking to beat DiNucci this weekend, and add some bragging rights to the NDSU-JMU rivalry, Wentz had some advice for the rookie, recalling his own first career start.
"Going into my first game, there's a lot of nerves, excitement, a lot of different emotions," Wentz said.
"Things happen faster, windows close quicker, D-line's faster, all those things. But at the end of the day, it's still football that you've been playing since you were a kid. You have to keep that in the front of your mind, that’s it's still just a game and you have to have fun with it."
Wentz, DiNucci. North Dakota State, James Madison. Eagles, Cowboys. There should be a lot to root for Sunday night.
— 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.