James Madison won its first Division I-AA Football Championship with a 31-21 victory over two-time champion Montana December 17 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was Montana's fifth trip to the NCAA championship game in 10 years but just the first for James Madison.
The Dukes, led by two scores each from sophomore tailback Maurice Fenner and sophomore quarterback Justin Rascati, trailed twice and allowed a first-quarter touchdown for the first time this season before taking the lead for good in the third quarter.
The victory was James Madison's fifth straight and added to the Dukes' 13-2 season record. The Dukes are the second straight
I-AA NCAA champion to come out of the Atlantic 10 Conference. The 2003 champion was Delaware.
The James Madison team also made history on its way to the championship game, becoming the first team to advance to the title contest with three straight wins on the road. The Dukes won preliminary-round games at Lehigh, Furman, and William and Mary.
Montana's Jefferson Heidelberger put the first points on the board, catching a 3-yard pass from quarterback Craig Ochs less than five minutes into the game. That score ended a 71-yard drive that included four straight passes totaling 63 yards. Ochs highlighted the drive with a 22-yard completion to Tate Hancock on a third-and-15 play.
The Montana touchdown went unanswered until midway through the second quarter, when James Madison's David Rabil kicked a 28-yard field goal. With the clock winding down in the half, Fenner rushed 1 yard for James Madison's first touchdown and a 10-7 halftime lead.
James Madison struck again just minutes into the second half on an 11-yard run by Rascati to extend the lead to 17-7.
Montana quickly answered with back-to-back touchdowns in less than 90 seconds. The first was a 17-yard pass from Ochs to Levander Segars. The Montana defense then recovered a James Madison fumble, and three plays later Willie Walden caught an 8-yard pass from Ochs to put the Grizzlies ahead, 21-17.
Before the third quarter closed, Fenner scored again on another 1-yard run and the Dukes never looked back. The defense kept Montana scoreless for the remainder of the game, while Rascati scored his second rushing touchdown with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
Montana tried to answer the Rascati score with a rally late in the quarter, but when Ochs lofted the ball on a fourth-and-15 play, James Madison's Clint Kent intercepted and the comeback was halted.
The James Madison rushing game, special-teams effort and strong defense propelled the team to its first championship in its 33-year football history, despite a strong performance from Ochs, a transfer from Colorado.
The defense prevented the Montana rushing game from gaining momentum, holding the Grizzlies to only 44 yards on the ground.
Ochs managed some success through the air, throwing for 371 yards. Rascati, who transferred from Louisville, threw for 132 yards, while the Dukes posted 314 total rushing yards.
Sixth-year James Madison coach Mickey Matthews said the original game plan had been to keep the ball in the air, but the early success the Dukes had with the rush adjusted the strategy.
"We went into the game planning to throw the ball," he said, "but we were making so many yards rushing that we didn't need to throw.
"Our league is great -- that was Atlantic 10 football in the second half," Matthews added. "Our league is by far the best in the country. Playing in our league really prepared us to play in this environment against Montana. Our guys thought they were going to win."
Montana's last trip to the title game was in 2001, when the Grizzlies took the championship. They also won in 1995, but trips in 1996 and 2000 resulted in runner-up finishes.
In preparing for the championship game, Montana coach Bobby Hauck praised the Dukes for their ability to win away from home.
"It speaks volumes that they've gone on the road three times in the playoffs and won," he said. "That tells you what kind of a team they are."
|James Madison||0||10||14||7 -- 31|
|Montana||7||0||14||0 -- 21|
M: Jefferson Heidelberger 3 pass from Craig Ochs (Dan Carpenter kick), 10:08
JM: FG David Rabil 28, 8:54
JM: Maurice Fenner 1 run (Rabil kick), 00:16
JM: Justin Rascati 11 run (Rabil kick), 11:58
M: Levander Segars 17 pass from Ochs (Carpenter kick), 8:51
M: Willie Walden 8 pass from Ochs (Carpenter kick), 7:29
JM: Fenner 1 run (Rabil kick), 3:25
JM: Rascati 6 run (Rabil kick), 8:00
James Madison Montana
|Time of possession||36:13||23:47|
Rushing: James Madison --Fenner 29-164; Alvin Banks 13-88; Rascati 11-57; Chris Iorio 4-15; Nic Tolley 1-minus 2; Antoinne Bolton 1-minus 4. Montana -- Lex Hilliard 12-26; Heidelberger 2-8; Ochs 4-4; Justin Green 3-3; Carpenter 1-3.
Passing: James Madison -- Rascati 13-18-0-132. Montana -- Ochs 29-38-1-371.
Receiving: James Madison -- Tom Ridley 3-32; L.C. Baker 3-17; D.D. Boxley 2-27; Banks 2-23; Casime Harris 1-14; Tolley 1-13; Ardon Bransford 1-6. Montana -- Jon Talmage 6-84; Levander Segars 6-64; Heidelberger 5-82; Tate Hancock 5-74; Justin Green 3-31; Walden 3-25; Hilliard 1-11.