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Defending champ James Madison returning to FCS title game

December 17, 2017

James Madison running back Taylor Woods (20) gets tackled by the South Dakota State defense during the first half of a FCS semifinal football game, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017 in Harrisonburg, Va. (Stephen Swofford/Daily News-Record via AP)

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — James Madison enjoyed a memorable night in a game that one can only imagine South Dakota State will want to forget.

Marcus Marshall broke loose on a pair of long touchdown runs, Jimmy Moreland made three interceptions and defending FCS national champion James Madison returned to the title game with a 51-16 victory Saturday night over South Dakota State, which gave up 10 turnovers.

The top-seeded Dukes (14-0) won their FCS-tying 26th straight game to return to the championship game against No. 2 seed North Dakota State, a 55-13 winner over Sam Houston State on Friday night. James Madison beat the Bison in the semifinals last year, ending NDSU’s run of five consecutive national championships. The championship game will be played in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 6. James Madison also won a title in 2004.

“For our team to compete the way it did, gives us a special memory and special night (we) will remember for a long, long time,” JMU coach Mike Houston said.

“We had a lot of adversity throughout the year, but the kids stuck together, kept on working, kept their faith and belief in each other and just time and time have been able to overcome different kind of obstacles, and to have the opportunity to return to go back to Frisco and compete for another national championship is truly an honor.”

Marshall, who helped set up a last-minute touchdown in the first half with a 38-yard kickoff return, raced up the middle to score twice to begin a 30-point third period that broke the game open. First he went 65 yards to score, and on the Dukes’ next possession he sprinted for a career-best 87 yard TD run and a 35-10 lead.

“The thing that crushed it was the two long runs right out of the chute (in the third quarter),” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said. “I would say we broke down there. ... When you’re playing that type of athlete, you’ve seen it, it’s going to happen.”

South Dakota State (11-3), the fifth seed, was making its sixth straight playoff appearance and first semifinal. The Jackrabbits came in averaging 38.8 points per game and boasting a regular-season win over Missouri Valley Football Conference rival and champion NDSU but went up against a Dukes team giving up only 10.3 points per game.

Jackrabbits quarterback Taryn Christion was intercepted six times, including a pick-6, and lost three fumbles, two coming after the ball slipped from his hand. All five of the Jackrabbits’ first-quarter possessions ended with turnovers but the only points the Dukes managed came on a 2-yard pass from Bryan Schor to Riley Stapleton that was set up when Christion dropped the ball and Brandon Herferd picked it up at the SDSU 15 and carried it to the 5.

“Panicked,” Stiegelmeier said when asked what happened to an offense that gave up 10 turnovers. “I’m certain it started with their pass rush, and that’s best up front we’ve seen and we could have done better but they’re a good football team.

“Taryn pressed some. He’s a winner in every sense of the word; tonight he struggled.”

Houston pointed to his defense, which had five sacks, and its pressure on the quarterback, as the turning point.

“I thought it was the difference of the ballgame, especially with the talent they have at receiver and tight end we want to try take away the run game and get him uneasy in the pocket...” Houston said. “We got a hit on him on the first play of the game and we kind of kept on through the game.”

The Jackrabbits turned their fortunes on their first possession of the second quarter, driving 74 yards on eight plays with Christion throwing 9 yards to Jake Wieneke. The TD catch was Wieneke’s 59th of his career, snapping a tie for second in the FCS. He also broke a tie for first with former Eastern Washington University and current Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp for most consecutive games with a catch with 54.

James Madison responded on its next possession with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a 15-yard TD catch by Stapleton.

The Jackrabbits used over seven minutes in going 55 yards before Chase Vinatieri kicked a 37-yard field goal with 56 seconds left in the half. However, the Dukes needed only 40 seconds to go 58 yards, after a 37-yard kickoff return by Marshall, to go up 21-10 at halftime. Sparked by 30-yard completion to Stapleton and a pass interference penalty, the Dukes scored on Schor’s sneak with an assist from running back Trai Sharp, who gave the QB a shove into the end zone.

JMU, who gave up a season-high 28 points to Weber State before winning 31-28 on a final-play field goal, didn’t let the Jackrabbits get back into this game, tacking on Taylor Woods’ 3-yard run, an Ethan Ratke field goal and Raven Greene’s 59-yard pick-6 in a 30-point third quarter.

Besides Green’s school-record 14th career pick and Moreland’s three interceptions, Jordan Brown also snagged two.

Marshall finished with a career-high 203 yards on 15 carries. Schor threw for 203 yards and two scores, both to Stapleton.

Christion was 18 of 43 for 234 yards passing and TD passes to Wieneke, who had 105 yards receiving, and Dallas Goedert. Goedert, a two-time All-American tight end and considered a potential first-round NFL pick, played after aggravating an ankle injury on the first play and sitting out the rest last week’s victory over New Hampshire.

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