Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
It’s no secret that JMU and NDSU are good. Both teams spent the seasons at No. 1 and No. 2 in any respectable poll across the country.
Since late August, this is the matchup many have expected. In a few short days, we’ll finally see the debates settled on the field.
When the two teams take the field Saturday at Toyota Stadium, a few keys will determine the winner of what’s sure to be a great battle.
This is as simple as it gets. NDSU ranks fourth nationally in turnover margin, while the Dukes rank 19th. Both teams limit turnovers and have excellent athletes on defense who can generate turnovers.
Each team’s quarterback also understands the importance of taking care of the football. Ben DiNucci has shown tremendous growth in regards to ball security since last season. Trey Lance hasn’t tossed an interception this year for NDSU.
Turnovers are often the deciding factor in games, and there’s no reason to expect any differently Saturday.
With the JMU and NDSU being so evenly matched, the few miscues that will inevitably happen could easily determine the winner.
Keeping the turnover battle tight with JMU is the best way to beat the Dukes. In its loss to West Virginia, JMU lost the turnover battle 3-0. In a near-loss to Stony Brook, JMU dominated the game but lost the turnover battle 4-1. Against Northern Iowa, which JMU beat just 17-0 in the playoffs, the Dukes and Panthers were even with two takeaways apiece.
Beating JMU is best done through taking the ball away.
NDSU is fantastic at winning the turnover battle. The Bison haven’t lost the turnover battle since its first game, when it lost it 2-1 but still beat an overmatched Butler 57-10. Forcing NDSU turnovers is challenging, as the Bison lead the FCS in fewest turnovers lost with just six all season despite playing 15 games.
The line of scrimmage
Both teams love to run the ball and stop the run. These teams have old-school philosophies with new-school athletes. They’re athletic teams with incredible skill players and quarterbacks, but at their soul, these are power-running teams with strong offensive lines.
Each defense also stops the run at a high rate. These teams are built to win along their fronts, which is why they’re a combined 29-1 this year.
Can NDSU neutralize Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka? JMU’s defensive ends are among the best defensive linemen in the country, and no CAA team could slow the duo down. If the Bison can limit those two players, the game becomes more winnable. That’s easier said than done, though.
As you watch the game Saturday, keep a close eye on the line of scrimmage during rushing plays. Which team generates the push? The team that does it the most consistently will likely become the national champion.
The deep pass
This is the X-factor.
Can Ben DiNucci hit Brandon Polk or Riley Stapleton for a 40+ yard gain? NDSU’s defense is elite. Sustaining long touchdown drives is an incredible challenge, and picking up a few chunk plays makes the task of scoring much easier.
In some instances, a 40-yard gain doesn’t even require a deep pass from DiNucci, as Polk does all the work.
Look for JMU to target Polk in hopes of creating chunk plays in the passing game that could break the game open.
For the Bison, can Trey Lance find his playmakers like Phoenix Sproles? The Bison have solid athletes, and JMU’s secondary might be its biggest “weakness.” The Dukes are loaded in the secondary, but they love to leave corners alone in one-on-one coverage, which could lead to a few deep NDSU completions.
Although, the Dukes’ ability to generate pressure with just four pass rushers has helped them keep their safeties back in pass coverage. That certainly helps keeps the big plays to a minimum. If NDSU protects Lance and forces JMU to blitz linebackers or safeties, look for the Bison to attack over the top.