When looking at James Madison’s road to Frisco and the FCS National Championship game this weekend, you have to look farther back than just the beginning of this season. Let’s go all the way back to the week before last season’s second round matchup against Colgate. During that week, rumors started circulating that head coach Mike Houston was going to take the open job at UNC Charlotte. Houston addressed the rumors, saying he was interested and had conversations with FBS schools. The coach seemed to have one foot out the door, and the team played like it that week. Ben DiNucci threw five interceptions and Colgate kicked a field goal at the final gun to eliminate the Dukes.
The next day, the school announced that Houston would leave for an FBS opportunity which turned out to be East Carolina. A week later, it was announced that Curt Cignetti would take over the head coaching position for the Dukes. That’s where this year’s road to Frisco starts.
Cignetti, previously the coach at Elon, hired Shane Montgomery as the offensive coordinator. Montgomery previously worked at Youngtown State and Miami (OH). At Miami, he coached Ben Roethlisberger. On the defensive side, Cignetti lured Corey Hetherman from Maine. The Black Bears were one of the top defenses in the FCS in 2018.
Through the spring and into August preseason camp, Cignetti opened the quarterback position for a battle between DiNucci, Cole Johnson and Gage Maloney. A week prior to the first game, Cignetti announced that DiNucci would gain be the team’s starting quarterback. Many fans were worried that DiNucci would not be the guy that could lead the Dukes to a championship. All they had seared into his mind was the last game, the five interceptions.
The Dukes’ opened the season at West Virginia. JMU scored first, but could not get a lot going in the pass game. But we got a glimpse of what the run game would be for the Dukes on each side of the ball. JMU ran for 172 yards and only allowed West Virginia 34 yards rushing. But, the Dukes made too many mistakes and lost the game by a touchdown. The biggest mistake was a Ben DiNucci ill-advised interception that reminded the fans of what made them nervous about DiNucci entering the season.
From there, DiNucci settled down and the Dukes went on a tear. DiNucci ended the regular season with just five total interceptions. DiNucci erased all of the worry the Dukes and their fans had about him and won CAA offensive player of the year honors. If JMU needs to put the game on DiNucci’s shoulders to win the National Championship, the fan base should feel confident that he will get it done.
James Madison played a fairly soft FCS non-conference schedule heading into CAA play. The Dukes easily outscored St Francis, Morgan State and Chattanooga 144-33.
The CAA opener for James Madison had some big storylines. Not only were the Dukes looking to avenge their only home loss of the Mike Houston era to Elon, but it was Curt Cignetti’s return to the place where he was just a year earlier. After a quick early touchdown put Elon ahead, the Dukes rolled the rest of the way to a 45-10 victory.
The Dukes’ season was not without adversity. James Madison struggled to stop the pass against Stony Brook and again the following week against Villanova. Both games, however, battle tested the Dukes. Against Stony Brook, James Madison would take the lead, but each time, the defense would break and let the Seawolves tie it up. Stony Brook wound up passing for 318 yards and getting the game to overtime. James Madison would eventually get a stop in overtime to escape Long Island with the win. The following week against Villanova, the James Madison pass defense again struggled for three quarters. Daniel Smith threw for 387 yards, causing many to wonder if the Dukes had a real problem on their hands. In the fourth quarter, the defense settled in and forced turnovers on four of the five Villanova possessions, including an 83 yard pick six from MJ Hampton.
From the fourth quarter of the Villanova game through the rest of the season and playoffs, the secondary has settled in with everyone healthy. In the last eight games, the Dukes opponents have averaged 170.5 yards per game while throwing just 7 touchdowns and the Dukes have picked off 10 passes.
Through the entire year, the front four on defense has carried the Dukes. John Daka and Ron’Dell Carter have combined for 52 tackles for loss and 28 sacks. With their production, along with interior linemen Mike Green and Adeeb Atariwa, the Dukes’ front has dominated, allowing just 60 yards per game rushing
On offense, DiNucci threw for over 3200 yards and 27 touchdowns. James Madison, for the first time, has a 1000 yards rusher, Percy Agyei-Obese, and a 1000 yard receiver, Brandon Polk. When Cignetti was hired, his stated goal was to lead the CAA in rushing. The Dukes did just that, running for 248 yards. Along with Agyei-Obese, the Dukes got huge contributions in the run game from Juwon Hamilton, Latrele Palmer and Ben Dinucci. In the pass game, Riley Stapleton had a bounce back senior season after a tough junior year. He has been especially effective in the playoffs as he was in 2017.
The Dukes rolled through the regular season and earned the number two seed in the FCS playoffs. Their second round matchup after the bye was against Monmouth. The game started how many other games started for James Madison, with the opposition hitting a big play and taking an early lead. The difference was that Monmouth hit two big plays early. On the first play from scrimmage, Monmouth scored on a 93 yard touchdown run. After the Dukes answered with a big touchdown of their own, Monmouth ran the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown. The Dukes again answered and finally held. But on the first play of the second quarter, Monmouth leveled the game at 21. From there, the Dukes locked in and rolled, scoring the final 45 points of the game. James Madison did not punt once in the entire game.
The quarterfinal matchup against Northern Iowa would not be as easy. For as much offense as there was in the Dukes’ second round matchup, the game against Northern Iowa had just as much defense. Both defenses controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the game. James Madison jumped out to an early 10-0 lead and then settled into a run heavy offense to bleed clock. It was clear the JMU defense was dominating and that 10 points would potentially be able to hold up. The Dukes would tack on a late touchdown after a desperation turnover on downs by UNI to provide the final margin. It was the most dominant defensive showing of the season for JMU.
The semifinals brought a familiar playoff opponent for the Dukes. It would be a rematch of the 2017 quarterfinals against Weber State. In that matchup, Weber controller play for most of the game. But the Dukes used a furious late comeback and field goal at the gun to win that game. This year, JMU was determined not to let history repeat itself. The Dukes scored on their first three possessions to take a 17-0 lead. Weber was able to answer with a touchdown but JMU put the game away just before halftime. Ethan Ratke missed a long field goal try, but Weber had called timeout. Seeing the ball fall short on the kick, Coach Cignetti opted for a Hail Mary. The prayer was answered by Riley Stapleton and the Dukes went into the locker room up 24-7 and salted away the game in the second half to punch their ticket to Frisco.
Through the playoffs, JMU proved it can play any style they need to in order to win. They played the strong offensive game against Monmouth, the constrictive defensive game against Northern Iowa and the balanced game against Weber State. The multiple styles and midseason adversity will all serve them well as they face the best opponent that they will see all year in North Dakota State. The Dukes ended the Bison playoff run once; they’ll look to do it again this Saturday in Frisco.
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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