Editor’s Note: This is another article in a continuing series of articles from past FCS championship games. This is the game story from James Madison’s 2004 title victory over Montana.
By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
CHATTANOOGA, TN. — James Madison won the NCAA I-AA football championship the old-fashioned way Friday night against Montana. They earned it.
Overcoming a shaky start, the Dukes relied on superior offensive line play and solid rushing from Maurice Fenner and Alvin Banks to grind out a 31-21 victory over Montana before a crowd of 16,771 fans at Finley Stadium and a national television audience on ESPN2.
Fenner (29 carries for 164 yards) and quarterback Justin Rascati (13-of-18 for 132 yards passing, 11 carries for 62 yards rushing) ran for two touchdowns each and the Dukes controlled play on both sides of the ball in the second half.
“This is a dream come true to win a championship at any level,” said Rascati, a sophomore who transferred from Louisville before the start of the season. “We worked hard and hard work pays off.”
It was the first NCAA football championship in school history for JMU (14-2). Montana finished the season at 13-3.
“We thought we could throw the ball, but we were running the ball so well, we didn’t have to throw it,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. “We thought we could exploit them, we thought we were better than them.”
Held to 10 yards total and minus-four-yards rushing in the first quarter, the Dukes erupted for 314 yards rushing on 61 carries and 446 yards overall.
After gaining 279 yards in the first half, Montana was limited to 136 yards the rest of the way.
“When our defense is out in an adverse situation, we don’t put our heads down,” said Duke defensive end Sid Evans. “We just continue to play. We knew after we gave up that first score, the offense would come right back and pick us up.”
Craig Ochs (29-of-38 for three TDs and a career-high 371 yards passing) fired two touchdown passes for Montana in the second half, a 17-yard strike to Levander Segars and an eight-yard aerial to tight end Willie Walden to rally the Grizzlies from a 17-7 third-quarter deficit to a 21-17 lead midway through the period.
But the tenacious Dukes answered with drives of 72 and 80 yards, with Fenner scooting in from the one and Rascati scoring on a six-yard quarterback draw to clinch the game.
After Rascati’s touchdown made it a 10-point Duke lead with eight minutes remaining, Ochs marched the Grizzlies to the 35 before an interception on fourth and 15 ended Montana’s last possession.
JMU then used its running game to milk the final six minutes of the clock. After holding the ball for just 3:18 in the first quarter, the Dukes hogged it for 31 of the final 45 minutes.
James Madison overcame some shaky play in the first half Friday take a 10-7 halftime lead.
Maurice Fenner blasted into the end zone from the one-yard line on fourth down to cap a five-minute, 13-play, 71-yard drive and give the Dukes their first lead with 16 seconds remaining.
The gamble came after Matthews and first-year offensive coordinator Jeff Darden argued about whether to kick a field goal, or go for the touchdown.
“Jeff wanted to go for it,” Matthews said. “He talked me into it. It was a good, strong argument on the headset and he finally convinced me we would score.”
Things were less rosy for the Dukes early in the contest.
Montana did something no team had done against the Duke defense all year on the first drive of the game, moving 71 yards in 11 plays to score the only opening-quarter touchdown that JMU had allowed.
Craig Ochs sliced up the Duke secondary with four completions, the last by srambling from side to side and finding Jefferson Heidelberger for a four-yard scoring strike to make it 7-0 with 10:08 remaining.
“We were really upset with our tackling in the first quarter,” said Matthews. “We played so bad, we thought the kickoff was at 8:30 (instead of 8 p.m.).”
But while the Grizzly defense was shutting down the JMU offense early, Montana’s offense failed to extend the lead.
A fourth-down gamble came up a yard short of a first down when Montana kicker Dan Carpenter took a direct snap instead of trying a 46-yard field goal in the first period. Carpenter also missed wide on another 46-yard attempt in the second quarter and a 31-yard effort in the third quarter.
“If we had made those field goals, it’s a different game,” said Montana coach Bobby Hauck. “(JMU) just decided what they were going to do and they did it.”
Quarterback Justin Rascati got JMU moving on a 14-play 74-yard drive midway through the second quarter and David Rabil made it a 7-3 game when he bounced his 28-yard field goal off the right upright and through to cut the Grizzly advantage to 7-3.
Montana made the same mistake that many other JMU victims had suffered in the first half. The Grizzlies dominated nearly two to one in total offense, 213-128, but failed to take advantage of their opportunities after the opening drive.
Tate Hancock dropped a 28-yard pass from Ochs in the end zone after one of JMU’s safeties had fallen down on piece of loose turf in the end zone.
And a 45-yard pass play from Ochs to Heidelberger in the final seconds of the first half was wiped out by a holding penalty, killing off still another drive.
All of those missed opportunities came back to haunt the Grizzlies when JMU center Leon Steinfeld, guards Mike Magerko and George Burns and tackles Corey Davis and Jamaal Crowder took over the game.
“That was Atlantic 10 football in the second half,” said Matthews.
“Our league, by far, is the best in the country. The play in our league prepared us to play in this environment.”
The Dukes definitely convinced Montana of that assessment.
“We pretty much couldn’t stop them when we had to all night,” said Montana nose tackle Blake Hogan. “Hats off to them.”