2021 Division I FCS Playoff Semifinal Preview: #3 James Madison at #2 North Dakota State


This JMU-NDSU rivalry has been blooming over the past five seasons but like all good things, they have to come to an end. This will be the last meeting (at least with both at the FCS level) between these two juggernauts. James Madison is playing in its last season at the FCS level before moving to the FBS ranks starting next season and will be transitioning into playing in the Sun Belt Conference. So far, NDSU is staying put at the FCS ranks.

These two teams have met in the semi-finals or championship game three times prior to this game to go along with one other time earlier also in the playoffs but in the second round in 2011.

This will be the third meeting in Fargo with the two national title games played in Frisco, Texas. Overall, NDSU leads the series with three wins to just one loss.

That one loss though was one and only time that the Bison have lost a playoff game in their history inside the Fargodome. That game was in 2016 where JMU surprised NDSU after the Bison had won the prior five national championships. The Dukes won that game 27-17 and would go on to beat Youngstown State for that season’s national title.

NDSU would get its revenge twice over though in national title games in two very hard fought close games including the next season in 2017 and again in 2019. Those two games were classics and possibly two of the best FCS national title games in the history of the subdivision. NDSU won 17-13 in the 2018 title game and again in 2020 28-20. See highlights of these two national title games below.

Coming into this season, both teams were knocked out of the playoffs in this COVID-19 delayed spring 2021 season by eventual national champion Sam Houston with NDSU losing in the quarterfinal round and JMU in the semifinal round. Outside of Sam Houston, NDSU and JMU were the two strongest teams this season but have done it in some of the same yet also some different ways.

JMU was more similar to NDSU in the past with a strong running game and a strong defense but this year, the Dukes have opened up the passing game and still have kept their stout defense. NDSU has pretty much the same formula it has had the past decade with a strong running game and a stellar defense.

Here is a look at how these two teams stack up statistically. As can be seen, the two teams look very even in most categories and should give us another possible classic game this Friday night for the right to head to Frisco.

James Madison Dukes (12-1, 7-1 CAA)

LOCATION: Harrisonburg, Va.

HEAD COACH: Curt Cignetti (3rd Season, 33-4 @ JMU, 100-30 Overall)

JMU punted on its first possession against Montana in the quarterfinals. But on their second possession, the Dukes got on the board and would never look back. On the second play of the drive, Cole Johnson hit Devin Ravenel in stride and the speedy wide out did the rest; splitting the secondary and motoring into the end zone for an early 7-0 lead. Montana followed with a 51 yard field goal to make it 7-3, but that is as close as the Grizzlies would get.

Montana lost its top receiver three plays into the game, and starting quarterback in the middle of the second quarter. That would spell doom for the Grizzlies against one of the best defenses in the country. James Madison dominated defensively the entire game and was never really challenged.

The Dukes also got their run game going – something that had been of concern the last half of the season. Starting a drive from their own four yard line, Latrele Palmer got the Dukes out of the shadow of their end zone with a strong 19 yard run aided by the push of the offensive line. Two plays later, Antwane Wells, Jr drug defenders to mid field. That set up Palmer for a 50 yard run to extend the lead to 14-3 where it would go into half. It was more of the same in the second half as the final score was 28-6. James Madison ran for 192 yards against a Montana defense that entered the game allowing just 75 yards per game on the ground.

The Dukes offense is a juggernaut that has gotten stronger as the year has progressed. If they can be a little more successful in the run game as they were against Montana, the offense will be nearly impossible to stop.

It has been a pass happy offense for JMU, which is a turn from their previous strong teams that pounded the ball. But Cole Johnson has directed the offense efficiently and without mistakes. Johnson has completed 67.5% of his passes for a school record 3569 yards with 39 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He also has six rushing touchdowns on the season as well. Cole has two main targets in the passing game: wide receivers Antwane Wells and Kris Thornton. At any time, one of the two is usually open. Wells leads the team with 78 catches for 1197 yards and 14 touchdowns. Thornton is just behind in all categories with 77 catches, 1050 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The Dukes’ offense may look a little different, but the defense looks the same as it has over the last half decade: dominant. The Dukes have talent at all three levels of the defense and can rotate in second string players who are just as effective as the first strong. Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey and Kelvin Azanama are the leading tacklers from the linebacker position. Both play all three downs and can stop the run or drop into coverage. Tucker-Dorsey is tied for the team lead in interceptions with four.

The defensive line is made up of a quartet of players who account for 24 of the Dukes’ 39 sacks and 55 of their 110 tackles for loss. Mike Greene has been the anchor of the line for the last three years. Isaac Ukwu has battled knee injuries and has finally been able to get on the field and show his potential. Tony Thurston made a huge jump from his freshman year to sophomore year. And Bryce Carter transferred in with a pedigree, starring on the line for Towson before joining JMU this fall.

The secondary is a veteran group who doesnt get fooled often, but is sometimes susceptible to the big play. Greg Ross has four interceptions and 12 pass breakups to lead the group.

If the game is close late, the Dukes can rely on kicker Ethan Ratke to nail a kick when needed. Ratke is the all time leading scorer in FCS history for a kicker and is only 4 points off of the record held by Brian Westbrook. He has only missed three field goals all season. If the game is tight, Ratke can kick the Dukes to victory.

Key Player: QB Cole Johnson

Johnson will need to remain calm in the pocket and read the Bison pressure. He has been efficient all season and will need another mistake free game to win in Fargo. If the Bison front four can force Cole into mistakes, it may be a tough night for the Dukes. But Johnson has shown time and again that he has the smarts to read and react to what a defense is doing against him to get the ball to his talented playmakers.

North Dakota State Bison (12-1, 7-1 MVFC)


HEAD COACH: Matt Entz (3rd Season, 35-4 @ NDSU & Overall)

NDSU got off to a slow start last week offensively against #7 East Tennessee State in the quarterfinal round but turned a scoreless first quarter into a 13-0 halftime lead after two touchdown runs by RB TaMerik Williams.

The Bison would not let up in the second half with two more touchdowns and yielded just a field goal, which was set-up on a special teams punt return muff to give ETSU the field position to get the three points.

The Bison defense limited the nation’s leading rusher to 35 yards in the 27-3 in the quarterfinals. ETSU managed only 66 net rushing yards with its dual 1,000-yard backs Quay Holmes and Jacob Saylors. NDSU held a 401-165 advantage in total offense.

Williams rushed 15 times for 91 yards and those two touchdowns to lead seven Bison ball carriers who combined for 278 yards on the ground and 5.7 yards per carry. QB Cam Miller was 10 of 17 passing for 123 yards with completions to seven different receivers led by TE Josh Babicz’s three receptions for 49 yards.

The Bison again were playing without their top WR Christian Watson, who also missed NDSU’s second round game against Southern Illinois. He is nursing a hamstring injury and his status likely will not be known for this big game until just before kickoff. Watson is NDSU’s top passing threat and leads the team with 740 receiving yards and seven scores.

Miller has improved over his play under center from what we saw in the spring season. He was not the starter at the beginning of the season and instead that went to FBS Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson II. Patterson was hurt six games ago and has been healthy enough to play but Miller has taken over the starting job. Patterson though has come in in NDSU’s first two playoff games to play and many times when Miller has also been out there.

Neither quarterback has had the same kind of success as the past three signal callers, who are all in the NFL currently in Carson Wentz, Easton Stick, and Trey Lance. NDSU’s play is more like the play of their first three national titles in 2011 to 2013 under Brock Jensen where running the ball is the key on offense to use the great defense and control the clock.

This year’s Bison defense ranks first in the FCS in scoring and third in overall defense. NDSU has yielded just 11 points per game and just over 256 yards per game. The defensive line is the backbone of the team as this group has shown it can get pressure on the opposing quarterback to allow seven back in coverage. The line is also stellar against the running game as NDSU has yielded just over 81 yards on the ground.

Key Player: QB Cam Miller

JMU likely will be looking to stop the running game so Miller will need to use his arm at least enough to keep the Dukes honest. He will also need to use his legs if a play is not there to throw. The main key with Miller though will be to keep negative plays from happening–sacks, penalties, and turnovers. In what likely will be a very tight game, the Bison can not lose the turnover margin so it will be better to punt than try to force anything to use the main strength of the team in its defense.

Fearless Forecast:

Jamie: The Dukes have been here before. They wont be intimidated by the Fargodome. Four players from the 2016 team that won in Fargo are still on the roster. JT Timming is injured, but the other three are some of their more impactful players: QB Cole Johnson, LB Kelvin Azanama and K Ethan Ratke.

The Dukes have the defensive depth to take on the NDSU offensive line that other teams dont. If Cole Johnson can hit a couple big plays early to take the crowd out of the game, the Dukes will see their chances for victory increase. NDSU has eight titles for a reason. They dont make mistakes. JMU has to match that. Injuries are a concern for NDSU, their depth will be tested. JMU is as healthy as theyre going to be this year. The Dukes wont wear down in the fourth quarter. The offense is good enough to make the big plays that matter and send the Dukes back to Frisco. James Madison 23, North Dakota State 17

Kent: I believe home field will make a huge difference in this game and if this game was in Harrisonburg I would have a different outcome. Yes, JMU beat NDSU in 2016 in Fargo but that game has almost no bearing on this outcome. The Dukes look like a stronger passing team then they have been in the past and this has been one of the areas NDSU opponents have tried to exploit. They have at times as NDSU is fairly young in the defensive backfield but this group has come around.

The Fargodome this postseason has been nearly half empty for the first two playoff games but the crowd will come for this game and will also have their voices in full force in what is expected to be a full sellout. JMU will have its moments though with a couple of big plays in the passing game for scores to put JMU in a early lead. NDSU though will be able to pound the ball on the ground and wear down the Duke defense in the second half to take the lead late. The crowd will help the Bison defense to hold any late JMU offensive charge and NDSU will again advance to Frisco. North Dakota State 27 James Madison 24

Chuck: Before the playoff bracket was announced, I predicted JMU and Sam Houston wouldn’t make it to Frisco, and I haven’t changed my mind. This game will bring out the best in both squads, and ultimately the A gap power of NDSU will win the day. NDSU 30, JMU 23