FCS Playoffs Quarterfinal Matchup: Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley) at James Madison (Colonial)
When: Friday December 13th, 7:00 PM EST
Where: Bridgeforth Stadium, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Streaming: ESPN2, Watch ESPN App
Northern Iowa Panthers (10-4), Head Coach: Mark Farley
Missouri Valley Conference
Cedar Falls, Iowa
On Selection Sunday, many in the FCS world thought Northern Iowa would earn a seed in the FCS playoffs. However, when the bracket was revealed, it was South Dakota State who got the seed and the Panthers were forced into a first round matchup. After Northern Iowa used a suffocating defense to dispatch of San Diego, the Panthers drew a trip to play the Jackrabbits.
After a quarter of play, it looked like the committee had gotten the seeding correct. The Jackrabbits hopped out to a quick 7-0 lead on their first drive and forced a three and out on the Panthers opening drive. On the ensuing drive, the Panthers defense stiffened in a goal to goal situation, holding the Jacks to just a field goal. That hold would prove useful as the game wore on. Unfortunately for UNI, they still couldn’t get anything going, throwing an interception soon after they entered South Dakota State territory.
From there, momentum started to turn in Northern Iowa’s favor, even if they could not put any points in the board. The Panthers defense started to impose its will, intercepting Keaton Heide on one possession and forcing a fumble on the next. The Panthers finally got the break they were looking for when they recovered a fumble on a punt return. After a seven play, 30 yard drive, the Panthers kicked a field got to get on the board with just over two minutes left in the half.
UNI would get their only touchdown of the game on the opening drive of the second half. At that point the momentum was firmly with the Panthers, especially after they blocked Chase Vinatieri’s 45 yard field goal attempt.
The teams would then trade punts for the better part of the second half. As the clocked ticked down, the Panthers put together a strong 12 play 80 yard drive but they could not convert a third and goal from the one yard line, forcing them to kick a go ahead field goal. After a flag filled Jackrabbit possession, the Panthers held on fourth down to secure the win and a trip to James Madison
Looking back to the first quarter, the defensive hold to force the field goal wound up being the key moment in the game. The Panthers play exceptional defense. They allowed only 220 yards against South Dakota State and 213 against San Diego. They will need a similar performance to stay in the game against James Madison. This may be a game that somewhat resembles the defensive dog fight that they just played last week, so the Panthers will be ready. Can they score enough to scare the Dukes? That is the real question.
Key Player: With a defense as strong as Northern Iowa, you have to expect excellent play along the line. That’s exactly what the Panthers get from Elerson Smith. The junior defensive lineman is noticeable not only in size (6’7”, 245lbs) but also on the score sheet. Smith leads the Panthers with 14 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. His season was good enough to get him recognized as a semifinalist for the Buck Buchanan Award. Smith finished 9th in the voting that was released on December 10th. James Madison features a run game that uses multiple backs and looks to wear down an opposing defense. At quarterback, the Dukes’s Ben DiNucci has shown his elusiveness all season, avoiding the crippling mistakes that doomed the JMU season in 2018. If Smith can spend a lot of time in DiNucci’s face, the Panthers may be able to create turnovers and score points with a short field.
James Madison Dukes (21-1), Head Coach: Curt Cignetti
Colonial Athletic Association
The first fifteen minutes of James Madison’s second round playoff matchup against Monmouth saw a dizzying number of momentum shifts. The Dukes forced a fumble on the opening kickoff, forcing Monmouth to start at their own seven yard line. The crowd was rocking for exactly one play – right after that, Monmouth RB Pete Guerriero silenced the Bridgeforth Stadium faithful with a 93 yard run. The Dukes were unfazed, taking their first possession 75 yards culminating in a Brandon Polk 49 yard touchdown catch and run.
Monmouth atoned for their fumble on the opening kickoff by returning the next kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, reclaiming the lead. Monmouth had run one play from scrimmage, but had already put 14 points on the board.
The Dukes again answered with a Percy Agyei-Obese 1 yard run. Finally the Dukes defense held Monmouth, as they would pretty much the rest of the game, and the JMU offense put points on the board to take a 21-14 lead.
But Monmouth wasn’t done, Kenji Bahar hit Terrence Green on a 32 yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter to tie the game again. At that point, Monmouth had 178 yards of total offense and it looked like they would be able to hang with the Dukes blow by blow.
But those would be the last points the Hawks would score.
The Dukes, as they usually do, stiffened and only allowed Monmouth a total of 88 yards the rest of the way. In fact, the Hawks finished the game with 93 yards rushing, the same number of yards as Guerriero’s first play gallop.
The Dukes would go on to roll up 623 yards of total offense, 291 passing and 332 rushing.
There are two aspects of their game that James Madison needs to clean up: slow starts and kickoff coverage. The Dukes have routinely been slow to start games, giving up quick drives to their opponents on their first possession. They have generally settled down and suffocated their opponents after that, especially since November, but as the playoffs wear on and the competition gets tougher, it may be harder for the Dukes to recover from a slow start.
Many teams have been able to start with strong field position against JMU thanks to their mistakes in kickoff coverage. The Dukes have allowed kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns in each of their last two games. That is an area you know Curt Cignetti will want to clean up moving forward.
Key Player: Much like Northern Iowa with Ellerson Smith, James Madison features a strong, dominant defensive lineman up for the Buchanan Award. Except when talking about James Madison, you have to ask, which one? John Daka wound up seventh in the Buchanan voting. He currently has a single season school record 14.5 sacks and 24 tackles for loss. Account for Daka and you still have to worry about Ron’Dell Carter who was named one of three finalists for the Buchanan Award. Carter has 10.5 sacks and 24 tackles for loss. If these two can continue to play at their high level and control the line of scrimmage, it will be hard for anyone to beat James Madison.
Fearless Prediction: This game promises to be fairly low scoring, at least for a while. The difference in this game is on the offensive side of the ball. The Panthers struggle to move the ball while James Madison features on of the top offenses in the FCS. Look for the Dukes to pull away in the second half. James Madison 31, Northern Iowa 13
Jamie is a proud 2002 graduate of James Madison University. He’s witnessed the growth of the program from no one in the stands in 1998, to the hiring of Mickey Matthews, to the 2004 National Championship, to the 2008 team, to the struggles in the early 2010s, and finally the rebuild under Mike Houston. He also allegedly really enjoys Washington, DC-based Stanley Cup winners.
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