It’s a rivalry that began in 2016.
North Dakota State dominated the FCS. The Bison were winners of five straight national championships, a run of success that can be rivaled by few programs in the history of college athletics.
When they embarked on the playoffs that season, the Bison were 10-1 fresh off their sixth-straight finish atop the Missouri Valley Football Conference and an easy choice for the No. 1 seed in the postseason bracket. It seemed like another banner year for NDSU.
But a threat to the Bison’s dynasty was emerging. In Harrisonburg, Virginia, the Dukes of James Madison were putting together a formidable season of their own. Led by first-year head coach Mike Houston, JMU also went 10-1 with a Colonial Athletic Association title on its way to garnering the fourth seed.
That set that stage for the Dukes and Bison to square off in the FCS quarterfinals. Despite playing on its home turf in front of a sold-out FargoDome crowd, NDSU fell to JMU 27-17. It put an end to the Bison’s torrid run and firmly established the Dukes as an FCS powerhouse.
JMU went on to win the title that season, but that wasn’t the end of the tale between these two teams. They squared off once again the following year, this time in the national championship game. The Bison avenged their loss and won that title, then did it again last year but missed JMU—the Dukes faltered in the second round.
But on Saturday, the cross-country rivalry will once again be renewed. There was little question that these two programs were the best in the nation all season and each cruised through the playoffs, pitting them against each other in the national championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Here are six players to watch once the game kicks off at 12 p.m. ET on ABC.
QB Ben DiNucci
The Dukes’ signal caller transferred from Pitt in 2018 and posted a solid season in his first year at quarterback. But DiNucci exploded into the CAA Offensive Player of the Year, leading the nation with a 71.3% completion percentage to go along with 3,237 passing yards and a 27:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
DiNucci also makes plays happen with his legs, posting the third-most rushing yards on the team with 560 plus seven scores. He isn’t known for throwing deep down the field, but he’s been efficient on short and mid-range passes and has shown the ability to keep JMU in games.
WR Brandon Polk
Another FBS transfer, this one from Penn State, Brandon Polk came to the Dukes with just one year of eligibility and has made the most of it. The Ashburn, Virginia, native leads JMU in receptions (73), receiving yards (1,173) and receiving touchdowns (11) while giving his offense a vertical threat that takes the top off of defenses with ease.
DE Ron’Dell Carter
The Dukes sport the No. 1 defense in the FCS in yards (264.7 per game) and rank third in points allowed (14.9) and a big reason for that is Buck Buchanan Award finalist Ron’Dell Carter.
A consensus First Team All-American defensive end, Carter has accumulated 19 sacks and 38.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. He’s the unquestioned top talent on this defense and at 6-foot-3, 269 pounds, will have a chance somewhere to compete on Sundays once his college career comes to an end.
North Dakota State
QB Trey Lance
Trey Lance may only be a redshirt freshman, but the numbers he’s put up this season are nothing short of video game-esque. The Walter Payton Award finalist has thrown for 2,714 yards and 28 touchdowns while adding 934 yards on the ground and 13 rushing scores.
But the number that really stands out is his interception total: zero. Lance took the FCS by storm and has been an unstoppable force both in the pocket and outside the tackles by any measure. Stopping him will be the Dukes’ tallest task of the season.
I’m not sure how Trey Lance isn’t at least a Top 3 Walter Payton Award finalist.— Sam Herder (@SamHerderFCS) November 9, 2019
LB Jabril Cox
As impressive as JMU’s defense has been this year, NDSU has matched it blow for blow. The Bison rank second in total yards (269.9 per game) and first in points (11.8). At the center of it all has been Jabril Cox.
Cox’s 4.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss may not be especially eye-popping, but the junior linebacker has outstanding versatility with the ability to rush the passer and drop back into coverage. His presence elevates the play of his teammates and makes the Bison the real show-stopper they’ve been this season.
SS Michael Tutsie
In the secondary, no one’s put together a more impressive season for NDSU than Michael Tutsie. His seven interceptions are tied for the second-most in the FCS while his 98 tackles are good for second-best on the team.
Michael Tutsie!— NDSU Football (@NDSUfootball) September 21, 2019
Huge INT at the goal line to keep UC Davis out of the endzone! pic.twitter.com/WiYSibbLys
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