James Madison hands UND 34-21 loss in FCS quarterfinals

James Madison, the No. 1-ranked team in the FCS and No. 3 seed in the playoffs, advances to play at No. 2 Sam Houston State in the national semifinals.

UND running back Otis Weah stretches for a touchdown during the second quarter of an FCS quarterfinal game against James Madison University. Photo by Daniel Lin / Daily News-Record

HARRISONBURG, Va. -- Bridgeforth Stadium rises out of nowhere on the picturesque James Madison campus, positioned in the Shenandoah Valley with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.

It's a wonderful place to be, unless you're an opposing college football program.

James Madison won its 11th-straight postseason game at home by racking up 468 yards of total offense in a 34-21 victory over UND on Sunday in the Fighting Hawks' first appearance in the FCS quarterfinals.

James Madison improved to 7-0 and will make its fourth national semifinal appearance in five seasons.

"I'm going to be hungry; that's all it is," UND standout running back Otis Weah said. "The team has to be hungry, because we just got a taste. We've got to be ready."


The Dukes, the No. 3 seed in the playoffs and the No. 1 team in the Top 25 poll, advance to play Sam Houston State in the national semifinals in Huntsville, Texas. The Bearkats beat North Dakota State on Sunday.

"We've got to learn from this season and learn from this last game, because this is what we want to do," UND coach Bubba Schweigert said. "We want to get to the quarterfinals and get into the playoffs and play really good opponents like JMU."

UND, fresh off the program's first-ever FCS playoff victory last Saturday, ends its season at 5-2. UND ended the year unbeaten at home, and the Hawks haven't loss in the Alerus Center since 2018.

But because it wasn't seeded in the NCAA playoffs, it had to go on the road to third-seeded James Madison, which is 37-1 in its last 38 home games.

"I think it is an advantage," Schweigert said of the importance of playing at home in the playoffs. "We have a good home record. Going on the road seems to be a bigger challenge. But we've got to learn how to play well on the road. These games and these situations help us. It was a little different this spring with the crowds being smaller and all of that but these situations, you've got to learn from and keep the program growing. No question, to earn a seed is really important. That really helps programs. You don't have to travel. You're in your familiar setting at home. It really helps you in preparation."

Said James Madison coach Curt Cignetti said: "The team that's got to travel in a situation like this is at a real disadvantage. Today, I was in the office at 7 a.m., and I probably watched film for six hours, because we have all our technology here. I picked up a few things that may have helped us during the game. When you go on the road, you don't have those advantages."

Dukes quarterback Cole Johnson was 14-for-17 passing for 251 yards and two touchdowns. His favorite target was Antwane Wells Jr., a 6-foot-1 freshman, who had seven catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns.


The James Madison passing game was allowed to take flight because the Dukes could run the ball with success. The Dukes finished with 217 rushing yards, led by Percy Agyei-Obese, who had 128 rushing yards on 27 carries with two touchdowns.

"We've got to be better at stopping the run," Schweigert said. "To play great defense, you've got to play against these teams, they're still teams that choose to run the football first, and you've got to get better at stopping the run. The one thing you can't give is explosive plays in the run game. That comes down to 11 guys executing. We'll take a look at it. We always want to learn as coaches, too. We've really got to be sound in execution. We knew coming in, their backs are really good, very strong, can break tackles. . . cut the ball back a few times on us tonight. But it takes 11 guys. To think that it's just the D-line or the linebackers defending the run, it takes all 11 out there to be a really good run defense."

UND redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Schuster, who threw two interceptions in a game for the first time in his career, finished with 213 passing yards. Weah ran 13 times for 96 yards and a touchdown, the seventh-straight game in the end zone for the sophomore from Moorhead.

"Some plays didn't go our way," Weah said. "We tried to fight back. Not everything is going to go our way every time. It's something we'll have to look back on and try to regroup."

Behind from the start

UND was chasing the score the entire game, trailing 10-0 after the first quarter. Schuster's first pass completion was on the last play of the quarter after starting the game 0-for-4.

The Fighting Hawks steadied the ship, though, in the first half with the help of some unique offensive play calls.

After the slow offensive start and a 10-point deficit, Weah broke off a 45-yard run on third-and-1 for the first sign of life early in the second quarter. Schuster followed with a 12-yard comeback route to Garett Maag, who had a season-high six catches for 87 yards. UND finished the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback Quincy Vaughn to make it 10-7 with 13:12 left in the second.


When James Madison countered with a Agyei-Obese 6-yard scoring run to make it 17-7, UND took some momentum to halftime with a bizarre drive.

The drive included an overturned call of a fumble by UND running back Dalton Gee, a fake punt with punter Cade Peterson under center at quarterback that drew JMU offsides, a double-lateral pass that ended with Schuster finding Adam Zavalney for 27 yards and a hook-and-ladder where Marcus Preston pitched it to running back Luke Skokna. That wild drive was ultimately capped off by a Weah 10-yard touchdown run to cut the Dukes' lead to 17-14 with 1:40 left in the first half.

"Once we start going tempo, we start to put teams on their heels," Weah said. "Running trick plays while we're doing tempo probably just made it that much better. But we had a good drive that drive and got our score on the board."

UND, however, gave up a 32-yard Ethan Ratke field goal as the second-quarter time expired to go to halftime trailing 20-14.

James Madison took a two-score lead on its second offensive drive of the second half. On a 19-yard touchdown pass to cap the drive, Johnson hit Wells Jr. on a slant. Wells Jr. bounced off a hit from UND safety Kadon Kauppinen and scored to make it 27-14 with 2:21 left in the third quarter.

The Dukes iced the game with a 63-yard touchdown catch from Wells, who streaked down the sideline and made the catch over UND cornerback C.J. Siegel to take a 34-14 lead with 10:06 remaining in the fourth quarter.

With 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, this touchdown drive was extended when UND was flagged for offsides on fourth-and-short. The penalty on UND true freshman Quinn Urwiler gave the Dukes a first down, leading to the three-score advantage.

UND scored its final points of the season in a hurry-up offense with 6:39 to go in the fourth as Skokna scored from 4 yards out to make it 34-21.


"People are hurt," said UND linebacker Devon Krzanowski, who had a team-high 13 tackles and a sack. "We had a special group here, and we thought we could do something special. The season just didn't end the way we wanted. We've got to bounce back."

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019 and 2022.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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