(STATS) - During his first spring workouts after arriving at James Madison, then-new coach Mike Houston expressed his desire to establish a culture similar to that of the five-time defending national champions.
The Dukes would make two goals heading into the season, realizing immediately that they'd have to go through North Dakota State to accomplish the one having to do with winning a national championship.
Now the moment they've been preparing for will finally arrive Friday night when Houston and the fourth-seeded Dukes hope to make their vision a reality by dethroning the top-seeded Bison in the FCS national semifinals at the Fargodome.
"In the middle of spring practice when we were working so hard to try to establish our culture, I made the statement - and it's a fact - they are the five-time defending national champions, and if you're going to have any chance of beating them, you're going to have to be physical and you're going to have to be able to combat their physicality," Houston recalled. "And I told our players that was the reason why it is so important for us to develop that kind of mindset. So in essence we've built this team to try to win this game."
The CAA champs (12-1) certainly showed that toughness last Friday during what the coach said was "probably our most dominating performance of the entire season." They held STATS FCS Walter Payton Award candidate Jeremiah Briscoe to just 13 of 44 passing for a season-low 143 yards and Raven Greene and Curtis Oliver pulled down interceptions in a 65-7 rout of a previously undefeated Sam Houston State team that came in averaging a nation-best 53.1 points.
James Madison hopes to similarly slow North Dakota State (12-1), which has come alive offensively with 36.3 points and 506.7 total yards per game over its last three. Running backs King Frazier and Lance Dunn and quarterback Easton Stick combined for 275 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the Bison's 36-10 home win over fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference co-champ South Dakota State on Saturday. After leading that effort for NDSU, left guard Zack Johnson and right tackle Landon Lechler were named to the Associated Press FCS All-America first team.
It certainly won't be easy for the Dukes at the noisy Fargodome, where the Bison are 55-5 since 2010 and have never lost in the playoffs with an 18-0 mark this decade. Houston, however, insists his squad is well-prepared for this type of environment.
"We probably had the most challenging road schedule in the conference this year with going to Maine, to New Hampshire, to Villanova and to Richmond, with Maine and Richmond both coming off of a bye," he explained. "So we've went into places that traditionally are very difficult to play at and win at in the CAA. Certainly that coupled with the strength of the CAA does give us good preparation and good confidence going into what will be a very tough road game. I think our players understand the kind of mentality and mindset they've got to have on this trip."
After limiting high-scoring SDSU to a season low-tying total in avenging their only defeat, the Bison are bracing for another difficult test against a James Madison team that now leads the nation with 49.6 points per game and ranks third with an average of 532 total yards. Quarterback Bryan Schor completed 13 of 17 passes for 251 yards with one touchdown and one interception against Sam Houston, while running backs Trai Sharp and Khalid Abdullah teamed for 285 yards and five scores on 45 carries.
NDSU, however, has been stout defensively, ranking third in the country with 15.8 points allowed per game and eighth in rushing defense (99.2) after holding the Jackrabbits to just 37 yards on the ground.
"(Schor) throws the ball really well, he keeps plays alive," Bison coach Chris Klieman said. "That's where I think he's been so impressive, where somebody's coming free or they look like there's a sack and he's been able to keep himself alive and keep plays alive and keep his eyes downfield. He can scramble, but he does a great job of finding receivers late downfield."
"If those guys have their play count up like a lot of the high-tempo teams, we'll be in trouble because they have so many explosive weapons."
This will be the second meeting between the schools after the Bison won 26-14 in Fargo in the second round of the 2011 playoffs - when NDSU began its title run. This time, the winner will face either unseeded Youngstown State (11-3) or No. 2 Eastern Washington (12-1) in the national championship in Frisco, Texas on Jan. 6.
"Coming into this season we made two goals, they were to be CAA champion and the next one was to be national champion, and we knew we would have to go through North Dakota State eventually to get that national championship," James Madison senior cornerback Taylor Reynolds said. "I think everything played out how it was supposed to. Everything coach Houston preached to us came true."
The Dukes hope it does one more time.