Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
The dream of hosting North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals is gone. The Bison were not up to the task this spring, as No. 2 Sam Houston defeated NDSU 24-20 last Sunday.
In fairness to the Bison, they fought hard. Despite being overmatched and outperformed, they scored two special teams touchdowns and forced (kind of) a safety on special teams as well.
Outside of that, Sam Houston was clearly the better team.
JMU, which defeated North Dakota 34-21 in a game it mostly controlled, heads to Huntsville, Texas. The No. 3 Dukes will face Sam Houston with a spot in the FCS national title game on the line. Kick off is set for 2:30 p.m. ET, and the game will air on ABC.
Here are three keys to the game.
Control the line of scrimmage
JMU fans will, understandably, refer to Sam Houston as Soft Houston this week. The Dukes demolished the Bearkats 65-7 back in the 2016 playoffs, and it’s easy to remember how dominant the Dukes were in the trenches.
This isn’t the same Sam Houston team that often floundered against physical teams in the postseason. The Bearkats were legitimately better than North Dakota State. It’s a down year for the Bison, but SHSU showed toughness and speed all over the field. Sam Houston’s defensive unit is no joke.
The Bearkats allow just 68.9 rushing yards per game, the fourth-best mark in the FCS. JMU averages 243.1 rushing yards per game, the fourth-best mark in the FCS.
On the flipside, Sam Houston scores 39.2 points per game. The Bearkats throw the ball over the field, and they can run it, too. The offensive line more than holds its own, and the offense made plays against NDSU.
For JMU to advance, it needs to win the battle in the trenches. That’s not anywhere close to a guarantee to happen.
Second and third passing options
Welcome to the show, Antwane Wells Jr.
The freshman wide receiver is absolutely gutting defenses this postseason. The speedster with good hands has 11 receptions for 275 yards and three touchdowns through two playoff games. VMI didn’t have an answer for him down the field. Neither did North Dakota.
Sam Houston will likely watch the film and understand quickly that Cole Johnson is good enough to complete the deep ball, especially when Wells Jr. creates significant separation. Look for the Bearkats to have two defensive backs paying close attention to Wells Jr. at all times.
Given its solid defensive front, Sam Houston likely won’t try to crowd the box quite as much as other teams in the early going. The Bearkats think they can stop the run, even with safeties out of the box. They’ve proven that to be true this spring.
With Wells Jr. generating more attention, JMU’s secondary options need to step up. Kris Thornton has been great all year. Look for him, Scott Bracey and tight end Clayton Cheatham to have more opportunities this weekend. Finding slot receiver/running back Solomon Vanhorse should be a priority. Giving him a handful of touches can keep the defense guessing.
Bracey, Cheatham and Vanhorse have a combined 26 catches this spring. That’s what Wells Jr. has by himself. Those three, or at least one of those three, needs to come up with a few impressive plays with the defense likely focused heavily on stopping Wells Jr.
Finish the game
Sam Houston led Monmouth 21-0. It won 21-15 and needed a last-minute interception in the end zone to preserve the win.
The Bearkats led NDSU 17-2. They needed a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to turn a 20-17 deficit into a 24-20 win.
There’s reason to believe JMU can outlast Sam Houston. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s possible. The Dukes have better athletes than Monmouth and NDSU. The Dukes have a better offensive line. JMU even has better quarterback play, given Cole Johnson’s recent performances.
Sam Houston should’ve beaten NDSU by three scores. That’s scary … and maybe also reason for optimism for JMU fans. If the Bearkats struggled to put away Monmouth and NDSU, how will they fare when they need to finish off a top-four seed for a spot in the national title?
JMU can win Saturday. It won’t be an easy victory, as the Bearkats are built to hang with and defeat teams like NDSU and JMU, but the Dukes can win. If they can withstand the 85-degree Texas afternoon heat for a full 60 minutes, they’ll have chances to put themselves in front.
Keep a close eye on the team’s second-half showing, as that’s when Sam Houston has seemed the most vulnerable this postseason.