HARRISONBURG, Va. – Cole Bergquist threw three touchdown passes and Montana knocked player of the year contender Rodney Landers out before halftime and beat James Madison 35-27 Friday night to advance to the Football Championship Subdivision final.
Chase Reynolds scored three times for the Grizzlies (14-1), who forced four turnovers and twice turned Dukes fumbles on kickoffs into demoralizingly short, easy touchdown drives.
The Dukes (12-2), who rose to No. 1 in the nation after beating three-time defending champion Appalachian State in September, lost Walter Payton Award finalist Landers to an apparent ankle sprain late in the second quarter while trailing 14-10. James Madison never recovered, in part because it was as inept immediately after halftime as before.
The Dukes did make it interesting, having the ball in the final 2 minutes needing a touchdown and 2-point conversion to tie, but their drive ended on a fourth-and-20 incompletion.
Montana, which lost to James Madison in the 2004 national championship game, advanced to play either Richmond or Northern Iowa, who play Saturday, next Friday night for the title.
Montana drove 56 yards in seven plays after the opening kickoff of the second half, Bergquist rolling left and throwing across the field to Reynolds at the goal line on the right, a 27-yard touchdown that made it 21-10. It was Reynolds’ third touchdown of the game and school-record 22nd of the season, and the first for the sophomore on a reception.
On the ensuing kickoff, Patrick Ward fumbled for James Madison and Ryan Fetherston recovered for Montana at the JMU 34, the second lost fumble on a kickoff for the Dukes. Five plays later, Bergquist hit Steven Pfahler from 16 yards, Pfahler’s first career TD catch.
James Madison drove for its second touchdown behind the running of backup quarterback Drew Dudzik, but Montana’s two touchdowns in less than 3 minutes clearly left the Dukes gassed.
With Landers watching from the sidelines, his pads removed, he saw Montana drive 60 yards in just seven plays, with Bergquist finding Mike Ferriter to give Montana a 35-17 lead with 1:06 left in the third quarter.
The Grizzlies seemed to secure the win by stopping Eugene Holloman on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 10:42 left.
However, Montana was forced to punt from deep in its territory and the snap went over the punter’s head and out of the end zone for a safety. The Dukes took the free kick and drove 57 yards in six plays to Dudzik’s 18-yard touchdown run and 2-point conversion.
There was 6:10 remaining, and with the crowd at frigid Bridgeforth Stadium imploring the Dukes to pull off one more stunner in a season filled with dramatic comebacks, they got the stop they needed, but a flag on the punt forced them to have to drive 93 yards for the tie.
They didn’t make it, and when Dudzik’s pass to a diving Rockeed McCarter on fourth-and-20 from the Dukes’ 41 went off McCarter’s hands, Montana was on its way to the title game.
The Dukes trailed 14-10 at halftime and were fortunate to be that close. They turned the ball over three times — once at their 15 of a fumbled kickoff by Scotty McGee, and twice inside the Grizzlies’ 10. The last came on an interception thrown by Drew Dudzik, the Dukes’ backup quarterback, who came on for five plays after Landers limped off with a sprained ankle.
On the fifth play, a second-and-10 from the Montana 28, Dudzik threw towards the end zone for Patrick Ward, and Andrew Swink stepped in front of it and pulled it in at the 2.
Landers also fumbled at Montana’s 8, Tyler Pelluer recovering for the Grizzlies.
Montana’s first-half touchdowns came 57 seconds apart. Reynolds capped their first drive with a 2-yard run, and after McGee’s fumble, he ran twice, the last for 7 yards and the TD.
The Dukes made it 14-10 with a 69-yard marched capped by Holloman’s 1-yard dive.
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