FCS finalists JMU, NDSU know how to withstand the grind

(STATS) – For James Madison and North Dakota State to be facing the best of each other, they might have to meet at the end of spring practice around, oh, April 15.

By Jan. 6, the date of this year’s FCS championship game, both programs have been taxed by injuries and a long season.

As the preeminent powers of the subdivision, they’ll be squaring off in the championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. Top-seeded James Madison (14-0) is seeking to claim back-to-back national titles and second-seeded North Dakota State (13-1) is going for a sixth in seven years.

All of that postseason experience has taught them how to manage the many obstacles of a season and to both develop and utilize a high number of players.

“I think that’s the real key to it, knowing when to push and when to back off, knowing how to manage players and manage your roster,” JMU coach Mike Houston said Thursday on an NCAA conference call during a short break in his preparations. “It’s something I went through a few years ago when I was at Lenoir-Rhyne. We had a (15-game) season, and now having a 15-game season back-to-back, certainly I think is something that we’re conscious of and we understand that there’s going to be certain things that you’re now going to do late in the year that you may do early in the season or during preseason.

“But I think at the same time, we’ve built a confidence in the way we approach things and the way we do things that everybody is on the same page and everybody understands. When we’re adamant about we’re not taking people to the ground today (with tackles in practice), our players are conscientious of that and respect that, but, at the same time, they can still practice at a fast pace. So just learning how to practice in postseason play has been important.”

Both finalists have endured season-ending injuries or had key players miss a significant number of games. Each has overcome the loss of their original starting running back, JMU’s Cardon Johnson and later NDSU’s Lance Dunn, and JMU even swapped its place-kicker, Tyler Gray to Ethan Ratke, after a midseason injury. Some starters, including NDSU defensive end Greg Menard and JMU offensive tackle Tyree Chavious, were lost to injuries before the season even began.

Without giving specifics, Houston said his team should get some injured players back by the end of the three-week buildup to the title game. Wide receiver John Miller (lower leg), cornerback Curtis Oliver and offensive tackle Jahee Jackson are starters who missed the semifinal against South Dakota State.

Injuries have long been a staple in the NDSU dynasty. Former standouts including safety Colten Heagle, linebacker Travis Beck and defensive tackle Leevon Perry were sidelined for championship games, and linebacker Grant Olson even played in one on a torn ACL.

Knee injuries suffered by starting cornerbacks Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush in this year’s semifinal against Sam Houston State are particularly alarming because both could miss the title game, although coach Chris Klieman said Thursday on the conference call there’s an “outside” chance either could be dressed for action alongside potential first-time starters Marquise Bridges and Josh Haynes. Nickle back Dom Davis also could be returning after a four-game absence.

“Nobody is going to feel sorry for somebody being hurt, so the next guy has to be ready to play,” said Klieman, stressing how many players get reps during the season.

“You just know (injuries are) going to happen – that’s just the nature of football. You’re going to have guys injured. Nobody wants that. I hope we’re at our best, I hope JMU’s at their best, but that’s not the reality and both teams have lost guys for the season. You try to prepare for that all year long, you just don’t all of a sudden have an injury and think, oh boy, you’re gonna fix that problem right then. You try to look at that through the spring, through the summer, through fall camp and to develop enough depth that you can hopefully have eight defensive linemen for us that can play and four or five running backs and eight or nine defensive backs. You just have to continue to coach ’em all and coach ’em all every day because you never know when that opportunity is going to come.”