FRISCO, Texas (STATS) — They saved the best for last in the FCS this season.
Add in the unmatched intensity and physicality and the 40th FCS championship game showed why it was one of the most anticipated in history.
North Dakota State returned to its familiar throne atop the subdivision with a 17-13 victory over defending champion James Madison before 19,090 at Toyota Stadium on Saturday, but not before the Bison gave a nod of respect across the line of scrimmage to a Dukes program that had stopped their run of five straight national titles last season.
While ending top-seeded James Madison’s 26-game winning streak this time, North Dakota State (14-1) made it six championships in seven years. That ties Georgia Southern for the most in FCS history.
The Bison now have 14 national titles across all NCAA football divisions, breaking a tie for the most by any team cross any NCAA division in the poll era (since 1936). They have won six in the FCS, five in D-II and three in college.
North Dakota State is now 28-2 all-time in FCS playoff games; that .993 win percentage is the best by any team in FCS history.
“They made the play. We made too many mistakes,” James Madison coach Mike Houston said. The Dukes finished the season 14-1. Their 26-game winning streak was the longest active streak in the NCAA and the second-longest in FCS history.
The game was nothing short of epic.
Coach Chris Klieman’s Bison built a 17-6 halftime lead, scoring twice off turnovers, and desperately held on in the final 30 minutes after Marcus Marshall‘s 1-yard touchdown run early in the third. Fittingly, James Madison had a late drive with a chance to take the lead, but after punter Harry O’Kelly‘s 24-yard run kept it alive on a fake, the Dukes didn’t make it past the Bison 18.
Under heavy pressure on fourth down, Dukes quarterback Bryan Schor heaved a high-arcing pass to the North Dakota State goal line, but the ball was knocked to the ground. The Bison then ran out the final 58 seconds.
James Madison had scored at least 20 points in 53 straight games prior to the title loss. It was the first time James Madison was held to under 20 points since August 30, 2014.
In a bruising matchup of the two best defenses in the FCS, the Stick-to-Shepherd score was the most important offensive play of the game. On 3rd-and-17 at midfield, Shepherd slipped behind the James Madison secondary and Stick lofted a pass to him at the 10, which Shepherd turned into his first touchdown of the season and a 14-3 Bison lead with 4:14 left. It marked the first time the Dukes trailed by double digits this season.
James Madison scored on its first possession of the third quarter to close within 17-13. D’Angelo Amos‘ 33-yard punt return to the Bison 33 set up the drive and Marshall capped it with a 1-yard run.
North Dakota State scored its first touchdown after its opening drive was kept alive by a roughing-the-punter penalty. Running back Bruce Anderson finished off the 11-play, 66-yard drive by plowing in from 3 yards out.
The Bison never trailed as they held a nearly 15 1/2-minute possession advantage. Anderson carried the ball 18 times for 63 yards and Lance Dunn returned from a midseason injury to gain 50 yards on 13 carries.
The Dukes’ 22 minutes and 19 seconds of possession are its least in a game since October 31, 2015.
Information from ESPN Stats & Information and the Associated Press was used in this report.