FRISCO, Texas — North Dakota State loves physical football; it’s the program’s brand.
But the Bison don’t mind sprinkling in some trickery, too.
On Saturday, in the FCS national championship game against James Madison, NDSU mixed both to pull away from the Dukes.
A fake reverse, a fake field goal complemented the tough running of quarterback Trey Lance. It was the winning formula in the Bison’s 28-20 victory in front of 17,866 patrons at Toyota Stadium.
“They played better than we did,” JMU coach Curt Cignetti said of NDSU. “Deserved to win.”
The victory marked NDSU’s third straight national title and its record eighth in the past nine years. The Bison are 8-0 in FCS title games.
Lance, who on Friday night won the Walter Payton Award as the nation’s top FCS offensive player, ran 30 times for 166 yards and a touchdown. He completed 6 of 10 passes for 72 yards. He finished the season with no interceptions.
“He’s probably the best quarterback I’ve faced,” JMU defensive end John Daka said. “That dude’s the truth.”
The Dukes got to Lance at times. They sacked him early. But the 6-3, 221-pound redshirt freshman wasn’t rattled.
One challenge of defending the quarterback run, as Daka noted, is that it creates an extra blocker compared to a carry by a conventional running back .
“Just one of those situations that you know that everybody’s going to get accounted for, so somebody got to make a play,” linebacker Dimitri Holloway said.
On NDSU’s second drive, on second-and-9, it appeared that JMU (14-2) had Lance contained. But he kept pushing, and surrounded by a pile, picked up 14 yards and a first down. That drive ended with the fake reverse.
With the Bison (16-0) on the JMU 38, Lance handed the ball to Phoenix Sproles, who then appeared to hand it off again to Christian Watson, who was racing in the opposite direction. But Sproles had held on to the ball, and he scampered along the sideline and into the end zone to give NDSU a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Cornerback Rashad Robinson felt the Bison “used us against us” on that play. They knew the Dukes typically show discipline on defense, and took advantage when it appeared Watson had the ball.
Deeper into the second quarter, when it appeared a drive had stalled out following a penalty, NDSU brought out its field goal unit and reached back into its bag of tricks. The Bison ran a fake — James Hendricks carried the ball for a 20-yard score, and the Bison took a 21-10 lead with 3:47 to play before the half.
Cignetti said the fake field goal was something JMU discussed in its morning coaches meeting. But it bit the Dukes that afternoon.
“We were in the protection for a block that was very sound, not high risk, and they executed and we didn’t,” Cignetti said.
The speedy Lance worked his own magic later in the game to give the Bison important cushion. He broke free on third-and-23 and scooted to the end zone for a 44-yard score to push the Bison’s lead to 28-13.
“They caught us in man coverage,” Daka said. “And I guess he saw that, and he just took off.”
JMU gave itself a chance late. Quarterback Ben DiNucci hit Riley Stapleton on a screen pass for a 5-yard touchdown, which made it 28-20 with 6:55 left. The Dukes then stopped NDSU on fourth-and-2 with about three minutes to play.
On the ensuing drive, the Dukes reached the NDSU 2 with the help of a 22-yard reception by Stapleton. But on first-and-goal from the 3, DiNucci was picked off by Hendricks at the goal line to seal it.
The Dukes had won 14 straight, led by a veteran core. They brought 20 starters back from last season.
But NDSU was the one FCS team to nip them.
Looking ahead, the Dukes will lose a lot of players. But they’re also optimistic about what’s in store as Cignetti pushes into his second year at JMU.
“It’s the last time this team will be together as we know it,” Cignetti said. “And I hate that we have to walk out like we are. But that is life. You don’t always get what you want.”
James Madison 7 3 3 7 — 20
N. Dakota St. 7 14 0 7 — 28
JMU—R.Stapleton 5 pass from DiNucci (Ratke kick), 7:27.
NDSU—Cofield 1 run (Reinholz kick), 3:30.
NDSU—Sproles 38 run (Reinholz kick), 14:50.
JMU—FG Ratke 26, 9:37.
NDSU—Hendricks 20 run (Reinholz kick), 3:47.
JMU—FG Ratke 27, 8:45.
NDSU—Lance 44 run (Reinholz kick), 14:50.
JMU—R.Stapleton 5 pass from DiNucci (Ratke kick), 6:55.
First downs 24 20
Rushes-yards 45-161 45-281
Passing 204 72
Comp-Att-Int 22-33-1 6-10-0
Return Yards 87 48
Punts-Avg. 3-36.3 3-45.3
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-0
Penalty-Yards 7-75 7-53
Time of Possession 31:43 28:17
RUSHING—James Madison, P. Agyei-Obese 18-73, L. Palmer 8-44, J. Hamilton 8-23, B. DiNucci 8-9, G. Moloney 2-8, B. Polk 1-4. N. Dakota St., T. Lance 30-166, P. Sproles 1-38, T. Brooks 3-28, A. Cofield 7-24, J. Hendricks 1-20, D. Williams 1-19, Team 1-(minus 2), C. Watson 1-(minus 12).
PASSING—James Madison, B. DiNucci 22-33-1-204. N. Dakota St., T. Lance 6-10-0-72.
RECEIVING—James Madison, R. Stapleton 10-100, D. Stapleton 6-66, J. Brown 2-23, D. Ravenel 1-7, B. Polk 1-6, J. Hamilton 2-2. N. Dakota St., N. Gindorff 1-22, H. Luepke 1-18, B. Ellefson 1-15, P. Sproles 1-13, C. Jacob 1-4, A. Cofield 1-0.