FRISCO, Texas – This is the most uncomfortable way to go out, of course. Beaten by mistakes as much as the opponent.
James Madison had three or four dropped passes to go with a pair of interceptions, a fumble, a missed field goal, and a roughing-the-punter penalty that led to a touchdown. North Dakota State took advantage of every one of those goofs on the way to a 17-13 win in the FCS championship game Saturday before a capacity-and-then-some crowd of 19,090 at Toyota Stadium.
The defending champion Dukes were attempting to become the fifth team to capture the FCS championship without a loss or tie. The FCS crowned its first champion in 1978, and the Bison have now captured six of those titles, including five straight 2011-15.
JMU quarterback Bryan Schor finished the Dukes' final possession on his back, a fitting ending for a guy who was on the run all day from NDSU's rush. After a 24-yard gain on a fake punt, Madison faced fourth-and-11 at NDSU's 20 with 1:10 left. Schor escaped heat and ran around before heaving a desperation throw to the end zone. A couple of guys from each team went up for the ball, which was batted down incomplete as Schor watched from his back, having been knocked down again.
Second-seeded NDSU (14-1) led 17-6 at halftime. The top-seeded Dukes (14-1) didn’t have much practice at this comeback routine, though they did rally from eight points behind in the final three minutes of their 31-28 quarterfinal win over Weber State.
But JMU’s defense set the tone in the second half by controlling NDSU, and JMU cut the Bison’s lead to 17-13 on an eight-play, 33-yarrd drive after the second sizeable punt return by D’Angelo Amos (Meadowbrook High). The Duke were at NDSU’s 21 on their next chance, but Schor threw his second interception.
Turnovers and penalties got JMU in first-half trouble. The Dukes lost a fumble, had a pass intercepted as Schor was hit while throwing, and committed a roughing-the-punter penalty. Following each of those mishaps, NDSU generated a scoring drive.
Ethan Ratke (Atlee High) hit a pair of first-half field goals (31 and 21 yards) for JMU’s only points before the break. He also missed from 42 yards.
North Dakota State made Madison’s offense look rusty. The Dukes last played on Dec. 16, a day after the Bison won their semifinal game. Schor was hurried and dealt with some early-game drops by his receivers.
The Dukes’ best drive of the first half came in the last 30 seconds, when 6-foot-5 Riley Stapleton outfought an NDSU defender for a 28-yard gain and a Bison interference penalty set up Ratke’s second FG.
JMU was well aware of the play-action passing success NDSU worked off its running game. The Dukes talked about it in the days leading up to this game. Madison coach Mike Houston noted that nearly every week, a Bison receiver ran free and caught a long pass off play-action.
NDSU pulled it off again. In the second quarter Easton Stick hit Darrius Shepherd for a 50-yard touchdown and there wasn’t a Duke within 20 yards of Shepherd when he made the reception.
Madison was one of seven on third-down opportunities in the first half, unable to pick up much on the ground on first and second downs.