But then, in the Football Championship Subdivision, there’s always this dynasty from Fargo, ready to clinch a national championship through yet another avenue, something even beyond the game-long stardom of must-see North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. That avenue came Saturday, and the Bison’s 28-20 lead became final, when a senior safety with a coach’s feel for the game spotted the formation, left his man and did some floating himself.
James Hendricks already had run 20 yards though an open boulevard for a second-quarter touchdown on a play in which he had lined up as the holder on a fake field goal. Now he reached up at the goal line and dealt DiNucci a mere sixth interception of the season and the excellent game a first turnover, then ran up the field 20 yards, then slid, then started another Bison celebration.
“I just left my guy,” Hendricks said, “and knew that they were going to throw it and trusted that he was going to make that throw to the flat and not the guy that I’m supposed to cover.”
“Brandon Polk’s the first option, looked open,” DiNucci said of his wide receiver. “I didn’t see Number 6; he made a heck of a play.”
“He jumped it,” said Matt Entz, North Dakota State’s first-year coach, shortly after pausing and smiling about whether Hendricks should have left his assignment. “And that’s what playmakers do.”
With that play after all the plays in a stirring game starring Lance and his 166 rushing yards, North Dakota State became the FCS national champion for the eighth time in the past nine seasons and for the third consecutive season since James Madison spent 2016-17 forging a one-year interruption. It became the first 16-0 team in any rung of college football since Yale in 1894, when Yale played a lesser schedule, albeit with lesser helmets. The whole thing lengthened the Bison’s latest winning streak to 37 games, stretching back to Nov. 4, 2017, when the Bison went to South Dakota State, faced some Jackrabbits, spilled five turnovers, went home with a 33-21 loss and clearly felt miffed about that.
It also left James Madison 14-2 and in that strange corridor of emotion between love and disappointment. Said Curt Cignetti, the Dukes’ first-year coach: “This is the last time this team will be together as we know it, and I hate that we have to walk out like we are. But that is life.”
Said 6-foot-5 wide receiver Riley Stapleton, a Godzilla with 10 catches for 100 yards, including a big 22-yarder on the Dukes’ closing, dramatic, 10-play, 60-yard bid at a tie: “It’s been an amazing experience. I wouldn’t change it for the world. JMU holds a special place in my heart. It’s tough to look back right now because this hurts so much.”
Said senior defensive end Ron’Dell Carter, who transferred in three years ago from Rutgers: “I kind of wish I would have come here as a true freshman . . . because this place is just so special, man.”
List the reasons they landed at a gutted 14-2 rather than a giddy 15-1, and the top slot would have to go to a smart, quick, tough, strong, patient, spectacular, steady, shrewd, adaptive quarterback who does seem to have everything. Lance, a 6-foot-3, 221-pound redshirt freshman from Marshall, Minn., who Friday became the first freshman to win the Walter Payton Award as the best player in the FCS, left hard runs strewn across a game his team led 21-7 and 28-13 before James Madison showed its uncommon inner mustard.
Three of Lance’s runs, in particular, shouted: a 32-yard scramble on third and 11 on North Dakota State’s first possession; a 14-yard marvel where he banged into two linebackers and seemed to pull half the population of Frisco the last 10 yards; and a 44-yard touchdown run on third and 23 when he took off to the left and outran both rosters.
“He’s just a cut above,” Cignetti said, soon adding, “You saw him run through linebackers in the first half.”
Bison tight end Ben Ellefson said, “He makes people around him better.”
Steadfast in modesty, Lance said, “A huge testament to the guys around me.”
A first-season starter had just finished 16 games with 287 pass attempts and 28 touchdown passes and a very grand interception total of zero. “You never plan on it happening like that, no,” Entz said while marveling at the youthful smarts.
Beyond all of that, and the fake field goal, and the fake reverse on which Phoenix Sproles ran for a 38-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead, the Dukes did end up reserving the right to engage in the age-old practice of kicking themselves. After the country’s best FCS teams got done scrapping and Carter said, “You live for this kind of game right here,” Cignetti thought of the errors and the times Lance got away and said, “I think you saw flashes of JMU football, but unfortunately there were too many big, negative plays that proved to be too much to overcome.”
Drives stalled for field goals of 27 and 26 yards even before that last stop, and Bison linebacker Jackson Hankey said: “That’s something we pride ourselves on at a very high level. . . . And we have a saying around here that says, ‘Field goals don’t get you beat.’ And that kind of showed up today.”
And DiNucci, who hit on 22 of 33 passes for 204 yards, said: “Honestly, I don’t really think they won the game. Honestly, I think we lost it.”
He mentioned the Bison’s “trick plays” and the possibility that James Madison “out-physicaled” the dynasty. That certainly looked the case right off the bat as 17,866 gathered in and the North Texas morning snow stopped and James Madison began with the kind of drive even a football zealot seldom might see. It went 86 yards through 17 plays — 12 rushes, five passes, wily play-calls.
It looked like what Cignetti would say later about his team: “Really had a great culture and a great karma. These guys have really never had a bad day, to be honest with you.”
In the hard world of football, they ended as a 14-2 team that started and finished with masterful drives, right down to the last floating ball.