HARRISONBURG, VA. — The highest of stakes are seemingly always on the line when Montana and James Madison University cross paths.
The two teams met in the 2004 national championship game, one JMU won 31-21 in Bobby Hauck's second year as UM's head coach. The two then met again in 2008 but in the semifinal round, and the Grizzlies topped the Dukes 35-27 in Harrisonburg, Virginia, when JMU was the No. 1 ranked team in the country.
The two teams will meet for just the third time on Friday night in Harrisonburg in the FCS quarterfinal round. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. local time, 5 p.m. Mountain time and on a national stage on ESPN2 at Bridgeforth Stadium.
For Hauck, now in his 10th season leading the Grizzlies, that 2008 game was a pivotal moment for the program.
"They were good, that's what I remember. Like, scary good," Hauck said. "We were kind of a young team that entered the season without much regard for it and had gotten better through the season. We played well. I also remember their head coach, Mickey Matthews, a good friend of mine, and he was pretty disappointed because that was the best team he had at JMU so it was a fun night, it was a good performance by us."
Perennially, these two programs have been some of the best in the FCS over the last two decades. But it could be the last time they meet for some time, as James Madison heads up to the Division I FBS level next year. The Dukes won another national title in 2016 and were runners-up in 2017 and 2019.
This time around, it's a battle of some of the best defenses in the country.
JMU (11-1) is riding a seven-game winning streak, and in that stretch has allowed over 20 points just three times. They rank fifth in the FCS in yards allowed per game (267.7) and are second in the FCS in opponent third-down conversion percentage (25.5%).
The Dukes also lead the country in turnover margin with a plus-21 mark, a stat they'll try to add to against UM's offense.
"I think our team has hit quite a bit of a stride and you know at this point it's win or go home so I think that's enough motivation for our team to keep competing and go out there and get a win," UM wide receiver Mitch Roberts said.
Offensively, JMU quarterback Cole Johnson leads the Dukes with the highest passing efficiency in the country (175.31), with 3,274 yards passing on the year, 37 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
As an offense, JMU averages 442 yards and 41.2 points per game (15th and 4th in the FCS, respectively), and they'll go toe-to-toe with the Grizzly defense that has been Montana's strength this year. UM is 18th in yards allowed per game (317.7) and eighth in scoring defense (15.33). The Grizzlies also lead the FCS in defensive touchdowns with six, and are sixth with 41 total sacks.
The Grizzlies (10-2) are 4-1 on the road this year and come in on a six-game winning streak of their own. UM's latest victories were big wins at home over Montana State and Eastern Washington, but now UM prepares for Friday Night Lights on the national stage again with a spot in the semifinals on the line.
"It's going to be a challenge," UM linebacker Patrick O'Connell said. "Us as a team, that's what we're looking forward to is a challenge and every team that's still playing right now is really good and that's what we're expecting so we're going to prepare as such and then we'll go out and do what we do."