HARRISONBURG, Va. — No game in James Madison postseason history had drawn more fans than Saturday's Football Bowl Subdivision semifinal against South Dakota State, and the crowd of 16,528 never tired of throwing purple and gold streamers into the air after each of the Dukes' seven touchdowns in a 51-16 win. That kept in line with a school tradition, and the final batch was thrown in the final seconds, when the entire crowd chanted "Frisco!" on loop.
That also felt like a familiar practice on a night when James Madison won its 26th consecutive game and punched its ticket back to the FCS national championship in Frisco, Tex., where it will seek to defend its title against North Dakota State on Jan. 6.
"You start the season, and everybody has the goal of making it to Frisco, and certainly that was our goal this year," James Madison Coach Mike Houston said. "To have the opportunity to go back down to Frisco and compete for another national championship is truly an honor."
James Madison's performance might have felt routine, but it began in bizarre fashion and finished with the Dukes (14-0) coming away with a school-record 10 turnovers. South Dakota State (11-3) committed five of those on its first five drives of the game, yet James Madison only had seven points to show for it.
At that point, senior quarterback Bryan Schor — who finished with 203 yards and two touchdowns passing — approached senior wide receiver Ishmael Hyman and told him they needed to rally the offense and score late in the second quarter — which Schor eventually did on a two-yard sneak with nine seconds remaining before half that made it 21-10.
The lead didn't feel safe until the early stages of the second half, when junior running back Marcus Marshall (203 yards on 15 carries) scored on touchdown runs of 65 and 87 yards on the first two drives of the third quarter to push the lead to 25 points. Although the Dukes' offense settled down, the night belonged to James Madison's defense. The unit picked off South Dakota State quarterback Taryn Christion six times — including three from cornerback Jimmy Moreland and two by safety Jordan Brown — and recovered four fumbles. A pair of those recoveries came from linebacker Kyre Hawkins.
"Ten turnovers, I don't know if you're ever going to win a game with that," South Dakota State Coach Jim Stiegelmeier said. "That would be a miracle."
South Dakota State, which was making its first appearance in the FCS semifinals and was averaging 444.2 yards and 38.8 points per game, was held to 366 total yards. Christion was also sacked five times, including two from defensive lineman Darrious Carter, who also had two forced fumbles. Aside from his two interceptions, Brown also had a fumble recovery.
"We really focused on the little things this week. We wanted to put together a complete performance this week," Brown said. "The whole team came together, and it was a fun game."
James Madison entered the night with one of the most vaunted defenses in the nation. It led the FCS in scoring defense, allowing just 10.3 points per game, and it had recorded 25 interceptions. But after an up-and-down showing in a comeback 31-28 quarterfinal win over Weber State last weekend, Brown said the unit focused on addressing its vulnerabilities this past week.
South Dakota State committed three straight turnovers in the third quarter as it desperately tried to rally, which fittingly led to the Dukes' final touchdown when James Madison defensive back Raven Greene returned an interception 59 yards for a score to make it 51-10 with 36 seconds left in the third quarter.
The game had long been decided, and the entire crowd already knew that they would have their rematch against North Dakota State. Saturday marked a year to the day that the Dukes beat the Bison in the FCS semifinals.
Schor celebrated on the sideline with his teammates at Bridgeforth Stadium.
"I love when we score and to look up and see the streamers fly," Schor said. "Hopefully we get to see that in Frisco, too."