Dukes are the kings of FCS: James Madison rolls to national championship
That’s a 58-character Twitter-friendly summation of how Youngstown State reached the NCAA’s FCS title game and the interception that proved to be a game-changer for James Madison.
The Dukes became the kings of the FCS Saturday with their 28-14 victory againstthe Penguins (12-4). After jumping to a 21-0 lead, James Madison put the game away early in the third quarter with a touchdown set up by sophomore Curtis Oliver’s interception.
“You go in the game like this, and somebody's going to make more plays than the other team,” Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini said. “They made more plays than us. We made a couple mistakes that hurt us, and therefore you get this result.
The Penguins trailed 21-7 at halftime, scoring late in the first half. That momentum could have carried into the second half as Youngstown State had the opening possession of the second half.
On third-and-3, quarterback Hunter Wells tried for a completion to Kevin Rader. That combination had produced the game-winning touchdown in the semifinals, a catch that Rader made with one hand pinning the ball against the defender’s back — it has over 35,000 views on YouTube.
Wells’ pass was deflected by a JMU defensive lineman and fluttered short of Rader. The ball bounced off his instep about 10 feet in the air and Oliver was there to snag it.
“We don’t believe in luck,” Oliver said. “Our D-line made the play with the tip of the pass. I was just pursuing the ball. Then it was ‘see the ball, catch the ball.’”
A six-play, 47-yard touchdown drive — aided by two pass interference penalties on YSU — led to Khalid Abdullah’s second rushing touchdown of the game and a 28-7 lead. That was a deficit too great for the Fightin’ Pelinis.
James Madison (14-1) checked all three boxes for winning football — offense, defense and special teams. Despite gaining only 253 yards, the Dukes were efficient and balanced; their four touchdown drives took 20 plays and covered 202 yards. The defense shut down the Penguins’ running game and a blocked punt on Youngstown State’s first possession jump-started the first half scoring.
“We felt like the operation time wasn't the quickest in the world,” JMU coach Mike Houston said of Youngstown State’s punt unit.
Senior linebacker Justin Wellons was unblocked sprinting in from the left side of the Dukes’ line and easily blocked the punt. From the YSU 18, James Madison scored in two plays to take a 7-0 lead.
“We watched film all week and we saw the look we wanted,” Wellons said shortly after the trophy presentation. “They had two shields (blockers) back in front of the punter and my eyes lit up. We pride ourselves on making plays.”
Despite gaining more yards than JMU, the Penguins were limited to 21 yards rushing on 31 attempts. Youngstown State’s second TD came with 10 seconds remaining.
Houston said limiting Youngstown State’s running game was accomplished with gap responsibility and all 11 defenders doing their jobs.
“We wanted to build a wall and set the edge,” linebacker Gage Steele said. “We also harp on being physical and make sure their running game didn’t get rolling.”
Three weeks ago James Madison ended North Dakota State’s five-year run as FCS champions with a stunning victory in Fargo. The Dukes, whose only loss was to North Carolina, came to Frisco determined to finish the job.
“I think a lot of the country probably thought when we beat North Dakota State that we'd have a good chance to win the championship,” junior quarterback Bryan Schor said. “Something that we really focused on throughout the whole week was it's just another game. We've got to earn the right to win it, and that's something we came out here, and I think we did today.”
We are the CHAMPIONS, my friends! ?? #GoDukes #FCSChamp pic.twitter.com/wFNyqLoFqI
— JMU Football (@JMUFootball) January 7, 2017
LEGENDARY STATUS!#FCSChamp ? pic.twitter.com/LLyiyFTXLe
— FCS Football (@NCAA_FCS) January 7, 2017
The Dukes won their 12th consecutive game, the longest active streak in FCS and second-longest in Division I behind Alabama's 26. Their 14-1 record included a 14-0 mark against FCS opponents and set a school record for victories. The only loss — 56-28 at North Carolina on Sept. 17.
JMU also went 6-0 against ranked opponents this season, all during the last seven contests.
Above: Khalid Abdullah and Gage Steele celebrates James Madison's 28-14 victory against Youngstown State in the FCS National Championship game Saturday at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)