A lot for FCS finalists North Dakota State, James Madison to be impressed about

NCAA Football
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(STATS) – North Dakota State, meet James Madison.

James Madison, meet North Dakota State.

OK, let’s face it, the two pre-eminent powers in FCS college football don’t quite need an introduction, but they didn’t do a deep dive into knowing the other’s 2019 squad until the last two weeks after they qualified for the national championship game Jan. 11 in Frisco, Texas.

Not surprisingly, they’re impressed.

“In fact, they played Delaware early in our conference, so I snuck a peek at that game early in the year when I had a chance,” James Madison’s first-year coach Curt Cignetti said Friday on an NCAA championship game teleconference. “I’ve watched them a little bit over the years – I’ve always kind of liked what they did offensively. Yeah, always kind of tuned in on their scores, how they were doing in the playoffs, hoping that this day may come.”

“We know that we’re going to have to continue to have great preparation to have an opportunity to win this ballgame,” said North Dakota State coach Matt Entz, who’s also in his first season at the helm. “I have a ton of respect for James Madison’s program. I’ve been fortunate enough to play ’em twice as a defensive coordinator at North Dakota State and know the caliber of kids, how hard they play (and) know it will be a great contest down in Frisco here a little over a week from now.”

North Dakota State (15-0) and James Madison (14-1) have been ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the FCS since the preseason, and they’re the two top seeds in the 24-team playoffs, which has been pared to their epic matchup. The unbeaten Bison are on an FCS-record 36-game winning streak.

NDSU has won two of the three all-time meetings – all in the playoffs. The Bison won the first meeting 26-14 in the 2011 second round on the way to winning the first of their record seven FCS national titles and then 17-13 in the 2017 national championship game. The Bison dynasty is 33-1 in the postseason since 2011, but James Madison handed the Missouri Valley Conference program the lone loss, 27-17 at the Fargodome in the 2016 semifinals en route to the CAA program winning its second national title.

So perhaps it’s a cross-country rivalry?

“We don’t play each other annually, so I guess by that definition, I would say no,” Entz said. “But I do think it’s two programs that respect one another and anticipate having to play a really good football game to win. That’s what we at least think of when we see JMU and I hope their coaches and their players think the exact same thing.”

“You can call it what you want. Is Clemson and Alabama a rivalry?” Cignetti said.

“I think in a sense it’s a rivalry even though we don’t play every year.”

Both programs use similar styles of play – a physical run game to set up the pass and aggressive, smothering defense. NDSU ranks fourth in the FCS in rushing offense (288 yards per game) and JMU is 10th (248.3). NDSU is No. 1 in the FCS in scoring defense (11.8 points per game) and passing defense (134.3) and No. 2 in total defense (269.9), while JMU is No. 1 in rushing defense (61.1) and total defense (264.7) and No. 3 in scoring defense (14.8).

They also have the best point differentials in the FCS, with JMU outscoring opponents by 397 (620 points scored, 223 allowed) and NDSU at plus-391 (568 to 177).

This year’s game is the third between the top two playoff seeds in the 10 seasons Frisco’s Toyota Stadium has been the host site. NDSU is seeking to become the first national champion to finish 16-0, while JMU could become the fifth program with three titles, joining the Bison (seven), Georgia Southern (six), Youngstown State (four) and Appalachian State (three).

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