Spring 2021 FCS Quarterfinal Playoff Preview: North Dakota at James Madison
April 30, 2021
These two teams both play a similar style. Both like to run the ball on offense to set up the pass. Both teams have aggressive defenses that like to spend a lot of time in the opposing backfield. North Dakota picked up its first ever FCS playoff victory last week in a 44-10 contest over Missouri State that was never in doubt. James Madison raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead against VMI that held up as VMI kept pushing for a 31-24 Dukes win. Currently, James Madison is a 2.5 point favorite over their visitors from Grand Forks.
North Dakota is a much different team at the Alerus Center than they are away from it. Over the last two seasons, the Fighting Hawks have won all 10 games they have played in front of their home crowd. In that same time frame, they have won just two of eight games. Those wins came against the worst team in the Big Sky – Cal Poly; and the worst team in the Missouri Valley – Western Illinois. North Dakota has the number 18 scoring offense in the FCS and the number 21 scoring defense. But the key for the Fighting Hawks may be whether they can stop James Madison from converting third downs. The Dukes rank 7th in third down conversions and the Fighting Hawks rank #52 defensively in preventing conversions. An aggressive defensive effort from North Dakota led to eight sacks last week in the win against Missouri State. They’ll need to repeat that performance this weekend if they want to move on to the Semifinals.
James Madison looked like their normal dominant selves in the first half against VMI. Despite trying a number of deep ball throws that didn’t pan out, the defense kept VMI off the scoreboard early. After VMI pinned JMU at their own 1 yard line, the Dukes took all the momentum with a 99 yard Juwon Hamilton touchdown run. JMU took their foot off the pedal and VMI continued to play strong in the second half. The result was just a seven point James Madison win. The Dukes know they must be better for the full 60 minutes this weekend. The Dukes have the best overall defense and run defense in the FCS. That strength ensures they are never out of a game. But the offense must be able to produce more. The play was inconsistent in round one, trying too many deep balls on first down that got the Dukes in third and long situations. If they can get back to establishing their fourth ranked run offense, JMU will be much better situated to move into the semifinals
Players to Watch on Offense
Running back Otis Weah has been a bowling ball for the North Dakota offense. He averages 7.1 yards per carry and routinely puts the Fighting Hawks in more manageable situations. He is averaging 105 yards a game and has eight touchdowns this season. If Weah can even average five yards a carry this weekend, North Dakota will be in good shape.
Quarterback Tommy Schuster has played well as a freshman for North Dakota. The main thing is that he has not turned the ball over a lot, throwing only three interceptions. Between his ball security and an aggressive defense, UND is 8th in the country in turnover ratio. Schuster has completed 66% of his passes so far this season. The future is bright in Grand Forks/
Quarterback Cole Johnson has had great games and extremely poor games. He was fairly inconsistent for James Madison in the first round completion just 50% of his passes. He threw for two touchdowns and two interceptions. He will need to protect the ball and keep the chains moving for the Dukes to win this game.
Wide Received Antwane Wells had his best game of his JMU career last week. Wells caught four passes for 132 yards including a 62 yard touchdowns. If Wells can pick up a couple of big chunks, there should be running lanes open for the running backs as UND will have to respect both aspects of the JMU offense.
Players to Watch on Defense
Linebacker Josh Navratil has 4.5 sacks on the season including two last week against Missouri State. Navratil has also forced one fumble for an aggressive, attacking Fighting Hawk defense. The key for UND: Navratil is only a freshman.
Linebacker Jaxson Turner has five sacks on the season and also had two last week against Missouri State. With a fearsome linebacking duo, the Fighting Hawks will be very aggressive this weekend.
Cornerback Wesley McCormick has frequently been the opposing offense’s target on the JMU defense. He stood up to the challenge last week, pulling down an interception in the end zone while covering the dangerous Jakob Herres. If teams continue to challenge McCormick, he will need to remain up to the task.
Safety MJ Hampton has been all over the field for the Dukes this season. He is strong in pass and run coverage. His five tackles for loss from the safety position is impressive. He disrupts the opposing offense multiple times each game.
If JMU limits the turnovers and forces North Dakota to go on long drives, its advantage Dukes. If North Dakota can get off the field on third down and take the ball away, forcing JMU into obvious passing situations, its advantage Fighting Hawks. But the real advantage is location. UND is 2-6 on the road in the last two seasons, JMU has won 35 of 36 at Bridgeforth. Advantage Dukes. James Madison 24, North Dakota 17
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.
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. Reach him at: