JMU Football Roundtable: North Dakota State Edition

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin, Jack Fitzpatrick and Chase Kiddy

It’s almost here. The game we’ve all been waiting for. In just over 24 hours, JMU and North Dakota State will square off in the FCS National Championship.

We’re pumped for this game, and we can’t wait to see which teams finds a way to come out victorious. It should be a blast.

Bennett, Chase and Jack joined forces for one last time this season to discuss the Dukes’ final game of the season. Jack is leading off, but we actually filled out these answers in reverse order, with Chase bucking the usual trend and filling out his answers first. Jack went last.

We’ll still go Jack, Bennett and then Chase in the written format because we’re a little superstitious, and this order has worked well this season.

Let’s get down to business. Finish the sentence. JMU beats NDSU if ____ ?

Jack Fitzpatrick, JMU Sports News: Being the last one to do this is tough, the two best answers have already been taken, my number one answer is to win the turnover battle and my second is to win the trenches, but since Bennett and Chase both have given great answers with those two aspects of the game I’m going to go with getting to the quarterback. 

NDSU has not faced a front seven like JMU’s all season. The Dukes are a different animal, they have racked up 131 tackles for loss and 46 sacks. They live in the opponent’s backfield and make life hard to get anything going offensively. Now, if JMU can keep that going and manufacture pressure on the redshirt freshman quarterback and make things uncomfortable in the pocket and minimize his scramble abilities I think this game can change quickly. The second Lance is forced to do things he hasn’t done all season and I believe he will start making mistakes, and if he makes mistakes JMU wins. 

So please, get to the quarterback. 

Bennett Conlin, JMU Sports News: If the Dukes win the turnover battle. When JMU struggles, it’s because it can’t take care of the football. The near-loss at Stony Brook jumps out. The loss to West Virginia was defined by turnovers. 

Last season, turnovers killed the Dukes against New Hampshire and Colgate. A key fumble late in the Elon game helped lead to that loss. A red-zone turnover against N.C. State proved costly. The year prior, turnovers hurt in the loss to North Dakota State in the national title. 

JMU is one of the most athletically gifted teams at the FCS level. Most teams can’t stop the Dukes athletically. If JMU limits turnovers, it is good enough to beat NDSU because of its elite athleticism at every single position. 

Chase Kiddy, Master of None: It controls the line of scrimmage. This is big boy football, and both teams want to win by running the ball and stopping the run. North Dakota State is a worthy opponent in the trenches, so JMU must really dig in to create running lanes on offense and clog things up on defense. It’s going to be a gritty, physical, blue-collar war for sixty minutes. If the JMU linemen are up to the task, I think the Dukes can control this game, score the points they need, and contain the Bison offense enough to win the game.

Same question, but let’s reverse it. NDSU beats JMU if _____ ?

Jack: They win the turnover battle. We saw it in 2017, NDSU won the turnover battle 3-1 and they got the win. This game in the end comes down to turnovers, whichever team can steal a possession or two will win this game. 

Bennett: If the Bison can consistently hit Ben DiNucci. There’s so much talk about JMU beating UNI 17-0 because it laid off the gas pedal and was content to slowly run the ball, play defense and win an ugly game. Let’s not forget that the Panthers put a few big shots on DiNucci, and the redshirt senior was a bit banged up and maybe even a little skittish after a few of those shots. 

After the hit, DiNucci made a few uncharacteristic mistakes, including a red-zone interception that he threw across his body. If NDSU can pressure DiNucci and knock him around early, he may show flashes of the mistake-prone quarterback we haven’t seen in the last 10-15 games. 

Even if the hits don’t rattle DiNucci, the Dukes’ skill players are too talented to cover for an extended period of time. Pressuring DiNucci helps limit Polk and Stapleton. 

Chase: It creates more big, game-changing plays than JMU. The Dukes have shown a propensity to score early, then constrict & outlive their opponents this postseason, and I suspect the formula isn’t going to change too much in this final game of the season. If Cignetti’s game plan is to slow the game down and limit possessions, then it stands to reason that a grindier, low-scoring game could favor JMU. North Dakota State can go on the offensive by attacking JMU’s safeties or popping big plays in special teams. I don’t think the Bison win this game by leaning into the usual three yards and a cloud of dust; I think they win it by turning JMU over, utilizing Lance’s incredible skills as a playmaker, and letting Christian Watson run roughshod over JMU’s secondary.

Both NDSU fans and JMU fans firmly believe their team has the best offensive and defensive lines in this game. Which team actually has the advantage in the trenches, and how big is the gap?

Jack: This is a tough question, but I believe that JMU has the edge on the defensive line, and NDSU has the edge on the offensive line. We all know how dominant the JMU defensive line is, with Atariwa and Greene clogging the middle up and allowing Daka and Carter to run free on the outside. There is a legitimate shot that this may be the best defensive line in this century, maybe even rivaling what Charles Haley & co. did. Two real NFL talents and athleticism across the line to keep opposing offensive lines head’s spinning.

Looking at NDSU’s offensive line a few things pop out right away that make me believe they are the better unit in this matchup. First off, they don’t let anyone get into their backfield, they only allow .80 sacks per game and only allow 3.47 tackles for loss a game, and they open up holes across the line to create the fourth best rushing attack in the nation with 288 yards per game. They are a huge line, averaging 310 lbs per guy up front and are a total of 1,551 lbs all told. They are built specifically for this team and what they do, and they may be the best counter to JMU’s defensive line. 

This matchup is what I am looking forward to most in the game. 

Bennett: I don’t think there’s a major gap in the trenches, but I’m leaning toward JMU. The Dukes are loaded up front on both sides, and the biggest edge comes on the defensive line. Which team has two All-American defensive ends like Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka? They’re beasts. 

Add in Mike Greene and Adeeb Atariwa in the middle, and you’re looking at the best defensive line in the FCS. There are few teams as athletically gifted on the defensive line as the Dukes, and I give them the edge. 

As Chase will go on to explain, both offensive lines are fantastic. Can NDSU’s defensive line slow down the Dukes’ defensive line? That may very well be the key to the game. 

Chase: Both offensive lines are very good, I don’t think there’s any question there. Either one is capable of leaning on the opposing defensive front late in the game, which is why winning the Time of Possession battle will be a critical factor in this game. When you evaluate the defensive lines, I think there’s more of a difference there. To my eye, the North Dakota State defensive line is noticeably less talented than in years past. Derrek Tuszka is very, very good, and the rotation has an impressive amount of depth to it, but I don’t think it presents the overall level of talent that JMU has with Carter, Daka, Atariwa, and Greene. So to me, this is really a series of questions that probably ends up serving as the most critical referendum on the championship game: 1) To what degree does JMU’s offensive line beat the NDSU Defensive Line? 2) How does that success stack up, relative to what the NDSU Offensive Line does to JMU? 3) In passing situations, can the JMU linemen minimize or neutralize the extra athletic dimension that Lance brings to the NDSU offense?

Ben DiNucci is the CAA Offensive Player of the Year, and he’s performed well all year. NDSU’s Trey Lance hasn’t thrown an INT all season, and he’s electric both through the air and on the ground. Which team holds the edge at quarterback?

Jack: Yes. That is my answer, you can say either one of these quarterbacks and be able to back it up. However, I am going to go with Ben DiNucci. He has more experience and I will take that over Trey Lance’s zero interceptions any day of the week. 

Bennett: DiNucci’s experience is critical. He’s been through football adversity. Trey Lance is 15-0 and hasn’t thrown an interception. Lance is unbelievable. He also hasn’t faced a ton of football adversity, which may hurt him in a close game if he has to bounce back from a mistake. 

On the other hand, Lance’s physical tools are nuts. He can bulldoze defenders in the running game, and he also possesses the speed to run by defenders. He’s accurate as a passer, and he throws a strong deep ball. There’s not much the quarterback doesn’t do well, and he’s in a perfect system. The Bison run the ball a ton, which allows Lance to focus on being an efficient passer. He rarely needs to win the team games. That’s similar to DiNucci and JMU, which rely heavily on the running game. 

In this game, I give the slightest of edges to DiNucci solely because of his experience, and I think he has better weapons around him. He’s the CAA Offensive Player of the Year, and he’s performing at an exceptionally high level as a redshirt senior. 

Lance has the brighter future and is a slightly better player, but I’ll take DiNucci on Saturday on a pressure-filled stage. 

Chase: If we’re talking pure skill, I’d definitely go with Trey Lance. He’s a really special player. Now, some of the hype around him has been exaggerated to absolutely ridiculous levels this year by media and fans — the “no, seriously, he’s a real Heisman contender” stuff early on, and the glorification of his passing game. This is a kid who is asked to throw fewer than 20 times a game, and has a massively helpful tailwind thanks to his offensive line, defense, and general institutional success. That’s not to take anything away from him, but I think some context is helpful here.

So, back to the question. If you’re asking me who the better quarterback is from a purely on-the-field perspective, I’m taking Trey Lance. I love his athleticism, his decision-making, his poise. If he doesn’t win the Walter Payton this year, I think he will at some point in the next two or three. But nobody plays quarterback in a vacuum, and I think when you consider all the weapons that DiNucci has at quarterback around him, along with the motivation he’s got to feel coming into this game, it’s clear to me which offense has the advantage on Saturday.

How excited are you for this game and what should casual fans expect from a JMU-NDSU showdown?

Jack: I am so excited for this game and everyone should be. Look, we aren’t the Bison and going to a natty three times in four years isn’t normal. Soak this in, be excited, be loud, be proud, and make sure everyone knows, wherever you are watching, that you root for the Dukes. 

Bennett: I’m amped! Who wouldn’t be? This is a game JMU fans hope for all season. It’s finally here. It’s the two best teams with the two best fanbases on the biggest stage in FCS football, and it’s nationally televised on ABC. It doesn’t get better than this. 

Chase: Any occasion that involves drinking before noon in a city I don’t live in is generally cause for excitement. 

Who wins the 2019-20 FCS National Championship? Share a score prediction. 

Jack: JMU wins 27-24. They will be up 27-17 with 2:00 minutes left and NDSU drives to pull within three. JMU recovers the onside kick then proceeds to go three and out and NDSU gets the ball back with about 40 seconds left. They try to get into field goal range and they get right on the outskirts forcing a tough FG attempt which falls two yards short. JMU rushes the field and the illegal streamers that fans figured out how to smuggle in fill the air as the team and crowd rush the field. 

That’s my only bold prediction, no guesses of safeties this time around. 

Bennett: I’ll take JMU 27-24 in a competitive game that comes down to the final few possessions. 

Chase: Despite the enjoyable clamor of a few fans asking me to pick against JMU, I’ll stick by the prediction I made over at HERO Sports. This is going to be a low-scoring prize fight where JMU is just a little bit better. Dukes win 23-17. 

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