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FCS Semifinal #1: NDSU never really Left

The Bison are again on their way to the FCS national championship after a hard-fought win against James Madison on Friday night.

Butler v North Dakota State Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

The more things change, the more they stay the same. On Friday night a raucous crowd of over 15,000 in the FargoDome erupted in joyous celebration as their beloved Bison sealed a 20-14 win over the Dukes of James Madison and secured their spot in the FCS title game for a ninth time in the last 11 years. The migration to Frisco has become almost an annual tradition for NDSU fans this time of year. Yes, they missed out in the spring but don’t get this misconstrued. The Bison aren’t back. They never left.

It only seemed fitting that they would have to go through the likes of James Madison to get there. JMU and NDSU have formed quite the rivalry as of late and the latest installment all came to a head on Friday in Fargo. Did it matter to the Bison that they had beaten the Dukes in two of the championships? No. And did it matter to James Madison that they were the only team to ever beat NDSU in their building in the playoffs (2016)? Absolutely not. Game #1 of the 2021 semifinals was about the here and now. For JMU, an opportunity to end their FCS journey in style. For the Bison, a chance to show the nation that they were the same team that everyone hated seeing in December. The stage was set.


Things started out well for the Dukes defense. Despite allowing a nine-play drive to NDSU that chewed nearly six minutes off the clock, JMU forced a punt and gave their offense a chance to strike first. That chance, however, was squandered with a punt of their own and it didn't take long for North Dakota State to show why you can't have empty possessions against them. Quarterback Cam Miller lofted a pass to Hunter Luepke who snatched it and then cut back inside on two defenders and into the end zone.

After a Bison field goal made it 10-0, JMU quarterback Cole Johnson tried his best to answer with a deep strike of his own but an underthrown ball was easily intercepted in the end zone by Dawson Weber. The Dukes were making mistakes that can't be made against a team like the Bison. The 13-0 deficit at halftime almost felt like 30-0 with the full force of Fargo letting JMU have it as they plodded to the locker rooms.

Curt Cignetti would not let his team go quietly, though, and a different James Madison squad came out after the break. Johnson led a 13-play, 80-yard scoring drive that took over six minutes. Antwane Wells Jr. gave JMU its much-needed first points of the evening and, more importantly, shifted momentum back to the visitors. The NDSU crowd was settled, at least for the moment.

Devin Ravenel all but silenced the already anxious fans late in the third. Johnson found him on a short four-yard scoring pass that propelled James Madison into their first lead of the game. Things were clicking and the Bison were no doubt starting to feel the heat as the fourth quarter began. Could the Dukes really do it again? Could they stymie mighty NDSU under their own roof for a second time?

Miller and Luepke had an answer for that. After driving down to the JMU 22 yard line, Miller let another one fly to the go-to playmaker of the night and Luepke took it in for the go ahead score. Momentum was squarely back on the home side. Now the defense just needed to hold on.

It seemed as though they might not be able to, though, as JMU marched it's way down to the Bison 7. There was just over three minutes to play now and Johnson had the Dukes knocking on the door again, this time for the potential game winner. On 3rd and 6 Johnson took the snap and zipped a shot toward receiver Reggie Brown in the corner of the end zone. NDSU's Dustin Talbert was covering Brown and went up with him. Talbert outstretched his arm and came down with a miraculous one-handed snag. Fargo went wild.

The Dukes did get one more chance at the end but Talbert's play was the one that realistically did it. The one that ended JMU's season... the one that sent the Bison back to the all-too familiar promise land. There would be no Dukes upset this time. No purple and gold celebrating in the Dome. The final installment (for now) went the way of the home team.

Luepke did it all for NDSU on Friday evening, carrying the ball 19 times and finishing as the team's leading rusher with 110 yards. He also was the top pass catcher with 89 yards on just three receptions. Miller was sharp, completing 10 of his 19 passes for 165 yards and two scores with no picks. The Bison defense held JMU to just 14 points, their lowest total of the entire season. The two picks all but sealed it.

The Dukes will see another impressive season end at the hands of NDSU. Now on their way to the Sun Belt and the FBS, JMU fans have to wonder what could have been if the Bison had not been in the way for so many of these years. James Madison has been a powerhouse in their own right over the last decade but only has one title to show for it in that span. Nonetheless, it's over now. Onward and upward to (potentially) greener pastures in Harrisonburg.

North Dakota State is awaiting the winner of Montana State and bitter rival South Dakota State and they won’t have to wait long as the Jacks and Bobcats kick off at noon on Saturday. But as it stands currently the Bison are here and they're looming. Whoever it is will have to go through Goliath and what a daunting task that may be.