It's insane, of course, that we're here again. As I've mentioned before NDSU's run through the FCS over the last half decade-plus is something to a video game with the difficulty on a novice setting. Six years, six chances to advance to a national championship game deep in the heart of Texas. NDSU takes on James Madison on Friday night, a team that hasn't lost a game to an FCS opponent all year.
James Madison and their fans bring a familiar rhetoric to Fargo. There's a lot of "they've never seen a team like us before", and even a little "Dukes by three touchdowns!" James Madison brings the sixth consecutive non conference opponent to the Fargodome for a semifinal game. They also bring a hell of an offense.
James Madison quarterback Bryan Schor is the great hope that JMU brings to Fargo with the hope to pull the upset. Schor is completing around 75% of his passes, which is absurd. He leads a spread offense that is the rare style of offense that has given the Bison fits in the past. Running back Khalid Abdullah is no slouch, either. 1500 yards and 20 touchdowns is no joke.
The question, though, is always the same. Just because James Madison fans believe the Bison have never seen anything like the Dukes, the reality is the Dukes haven't seen the Bison, either, and that has proven to be a much bigger problem historically. Teams that enter the Fargodome for the first time (yes they played in the playoffs before, but none of those players are still there and it's a different coaching staff) do not fare well.
North Dakota State has played 13 non conference opponents in the FCS playoffs at home. They've beaten all those opponents. They've also won those games by an average of 23 points. NDSU has actually won their last three semifinal games by an average of 29 points. Can JMU stop something like that from happening?
When the Bison have the ball:
James Madison and South Dakota State have two very different basic offensive philosophies but NDSU's strategy to beat them is going to be almost exactly the same. Keep everything in front of them in the passing game and dominate the running game on defense and control the clock on offense. NDSU will do that by running the ball with quarterback Easton Stick and a stable of capable running backs.
Stick and the offense have been exceptional of late, and they've been protecting a defense that is riddled with injury. Last week was the apex of NDSU execution on offense. They don't just play keep-away. They score. NDSU held the ball for a 2:1 advantage and still scored 36 points. It's one thing to snap the ball with one second on the play clock, it's something entirely different to maintain efficiency while doing so.
Dmitri Williams had joined Darrius Shepherd and RJ Urzendowski as capable pass catchers for the Bison offense. NDSU now features a lethal play action game. James Madison may be considerably weaker on defense than anyone is willing to admit. They've given up 56, 43, and 39 points in three different games. Until further review east coast football is too soft to succeed in the Fargodome.
When James Madison has the ball:
This, for the second consecutive week, will be where everyone is paying attention. JMU put 65 points on Sam Houston State a week ago in a nationally televised game. Everyone was watching and it. was. brutal.
Schor is a master of his craft. He's a senior with complete control of a very successful offense. He spreads the ball around and Abdullah keeps most defenses honest. The Dukes ran through the CAA offensively, winning blowouts and shootouts alike. JMU spreads defenses out and operates their run game and quick passing game in the alleys created by that space. It's not entirely like what Eastern Washington did successfully against the Bison in September.
The difference, though is how NDSU is defending the pass. In the last three games, NDSU has surrendered about 181 yards per game through the air despite leading for the majority of all those three games and facing desperate teams throwing the ball. Instead of the 3-3-5 nickel that got shredded by EWU (used Eric Bachmeier at SS and Grimsley at NB), NDSU will use a 4-2-5 attack with a consistent four man rush and emerging star Dom Davis defending the pass on the inside. It's a much better group.
It's unlikely that James Madison will be able to run the ball, because no one runs the ball against the Bison in the playoffs. JMU's best chance might be the Bryan Schor running game, as it's difficult to defend that many phases of one offense.
Prediction: Every season a different "hot" team rolls into the Fargodome for the semifinals. Most seasons, those teams have been put down without much of a fight. There might not be many Bison seniors on this class, but the ones that are left play with a tremendous amount of pride. Specifically the Bison on the offensive line and in the linebacking corps will have a huge impact on this game. Bison 38 James Madison 17