North Dakota State and James Madison will battle in Frisco for the 2019 FCS national championship game on Jan. 11, 2020. Here is everything that coach Curt Cignetti, quarterback Ben DiNucci, cornerback Rashad Robinson, linebacker Dimitri Holloway and defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter of the James Madison Dukes had to say before heading into the championship.
CURT CIGNETTI: Appreciate the hospitality. Frisco, the organization of the NCAA as we approach kickoff time here. From my standpoint now the goal is 5:00 we have a team meal, a quick meeting at 6:00 for the players to be able to get away from everything, get in a good place so they can sort of be at their best tomorrow morning. It’s going to be an early morning, early kickoff.
It’s been a good experience down here. Time to go play.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for the student-athletes.
Q. Dimitri, North Dakota State is a team that loves to run the ball. What jumps out to you about the run game?
DIMITRI HOLLOWAY: They got multiple backs, all of them very capable runners. They got a great O-line that does what they do. That’s one thing coach says they’ve always been doing, they just do it. They play bully ball. That’s their pride and joy. That’s what we have to plan on, putting our pads on, just be ready to go.
Q. Ben, what have the players that have been here in Frisco at the national championship, what advice have they given you?
BEN DiNUCCI: Not much. I try to lean on those guys when I can. But we’re trying to keep this thing as low-key as possible. To us it’s just another game. We’re down here for one reason, that’s to take care of business.
Nothing much has really changed from when I guess they were here a few years ago. Just being able to kind of pick their brains a little bit about the experience in the game, kind of what to expect has been good for me.
Q. Rashad, let’s talk about Trey Lance, what he’s been able to do this year as a quarterback. Defending the many targets that he has, talk about what you’ve seen out of him.
RASHAD ROBINSON: He’s a very good quarterback for as young as he is. He’s very patient. He hits the open receivers. He has good play-makers on the outside. On the back end we have to make sure we’re doing our job and playing sound football.
Q. Ron’Dell, when did you get a sense this group that you play with were coming together, was on the right path towards having the season you have had, would have a chance to win a national championship?
RON’DELL CARTER: I already knew once we played Stony Brook. When we played them, we had that shootout against them, we didn’t fold one time. We was poised the entire time. That’s one thing Coach Cignetti preached to us when he first got here. He said, We’re going to be a team that never loses our poise. We’re going to be calm, cool, collected in any situation. He told us that. One of the first three things he told us.
When we played Stony Brook, we was basically going up and down and back and forth with them. Once overtime came, when I seen him, he was happy-go-lucky at that time.
At that point, when I seen how we fought that entire time, Rashad was banged up that game, I was banged up the week before, we still stayed together the entire time, and we showed people we could do so. That moment right there I was just like, This team is going. I already knew.
Q. Ron’Dell, what is it like to be nominated for the Buck Buchanan Award here?
RON’DELL CARTER: It’s an amazing honor. For me, I’m still a big team guy. Obviously I want to win a national championship. But personally for me, that would be a huge accomplishment.
But just to be nominated alone, that’s an honor. No one has won at JMU since Arthur Moats did 11 years ago in 2009. It will be good not just me, but for our school, to say someone out of James Madison won the Buchanan Award. That would be a huge honor for me, my institution. And a huge shout-out to my teammates. Without them I wouldn’t be able to do what I’ve been doing this year. Without my coaches I wouldn’t be able to do what I’ve been doing this year. For me, I wanted to make sure I give a huge shout-out to them because without them it’s impossible.
Q. Ron’Dell, North Dakota State’s offensive line have three guys have that earned All-American honors. As you studied their offensive line, what has impressed you about them? What are you going to have to do to have the success you’ve had all year?
RON’DELL CARTER: Based on who they coach is, I know him pretty well because Blazek, he was their O-line coach when I was at Rutgers. I know exactly what kind of mentality he brings. I know exactly how their players are going to probably play. They’re going to be well-coached, they’re going to be disciplined, they’re going to do every little thing right. That’s how he’s always taught guys.
I’m assuming since he left, he’s not going to change that because he’s at North Dakota State. Traditionally they’ve been having a great offensive line. They have three All-Americans, I think all of them but one are juniors. For them to be relatively young and still be as disciplined and well-coached as they are, I just expect them to be the same exact way.
They’re probably not going to do a lot of trash talking. That’s not the type of team they are, or O-line they are. But they are going to play very physical, they’re going to play to the end of the whistle. We got to be ready for that. But I think we’ll be up for the challenge because our guys are ready for that, for sure.
Q. So much talk this year about last season not ending the way you wanted, the way the 2017 national championship game went. What would it mean if you were able to do the job, get a win tomorrow?
RASHAD ROBINSON: It would mean everything, especially with the things that some of these guys have been through in that locker room. We have older guys that was here in 2017. We fought through adversity through these last five years. It would just mean the world to us.
DIMITRI HOLLOWAY: It would be special, knowing all the ups and downs we’ve been through as a team, individually, knowing you can finish the last game here the right way. That’s the best way to go out.
BEN DiNUCCI: I would say putting the cherry on top. As seniors, all four of us up here are seniors, that’s kind of the way you want to go out, your last game having to play in a national championship. You can’t really ask for anything else.
RON’DELL CARTER: For me, I play for these guys. For guys like Rashad and Dimitri who overcome drastic injuries, for them to be able to bounce back, have the opportunity to win a championship. For me, like I said, personally, I definitely want a ring on my finger by the end of this week.
Like I said, I play for these guys. These are my guys right here, all three of them, and the rest of the guys in that locker room. So I want to do it for them, I want to do it for this school, absolutely.
Q. Rashad, especially talking about how you were here in I guess 2018, then the season-ending injury, what does it mean to you that now you’re back in this position, potentially your last game, finishing with a national championship?
RASHAD ROBINSON: It’s a blessing. I believe everything comes full circle and everything happens for a reason. Last year was a drastic injury. God had other plans. To come back this year, fight through that, I have to give credit to those guys in that locker room for keeping my head up in 2018. It was a hard time to have an injury like that my senior year.
But like I said, to just come full circle and have the opportunity to play out on that field for a national championship as my last college career just means the world to me.
Q. Dimitri, communication has been a vital part of this defense this year. North Dakota State uses multiple formations. Communication you guys are going to need tomorrow. Talk about what you’ve done to this point and how you have to elevate that tomorrow.
DIMITRI HOLLOWAY: Communication always key. I think that’s the main thing that coach is always harping on. Coach, back in the spring when he first got here, he used to get on us a bunch because he used to say the defense doesn’t talk a bunch. I think that’s just because we was just getting used to the defense. We didn’t really know the checks.
Now the guys have been going together, just doing the right things, everybody talking at each level, just saying the right things to one another. As long as we’re all on the same page, everything should go smooth.
Q. Ben, can you talk about the play-makers you have on offense around you.
BEN DiNUCCI: Yeah, I tell people all the time, it makes my job really easy when I’ve got all day to throw and the guys outside are getting open.
I think you can see Brandon Polk is a guy we didn’t necessarily have a threat like him on offense last year. He’s done a heck of a job this year of taking the top off of defenses. Missed Riley the first few games of the year. He’s come on really strong in the second half of this year, in these playoffs. We’re going to need everyone tomorrow morning.
Those guys set the tone for the offense as well as the offensive line. I’m one of 11. Without the other guys around me, nothing is possible. They do a heck of a job of making our offense go.
Q. Was there a moment that you felt everything really started to click in terms of what coach and the new staff wanted to do transitions from last season?
RON’DELL CARTER: Well, for us, I mean, pretty much after the Colgate game last year, we made our mind up we didn’t want a repeat of that. Thankfully we got these coaches to come. We were going to be ready regardless. We weren’t doing that this year, period. I’m just being honest with you. We weren’t going to go for that.
That was pretty much the moment for us. Once we got into our summer workouts, we had this little thing, we call it a summer validation. We’re going to validate everything on why we were the No. 2 ranking, anything like that. This is the summer to validate that. We did that this season. We got to finish it tomorrow. That’s what I believe.
BEN DiNUCCI: I would say after the West Virginia game, piggybacking on what Ron’Dell said. That Colgate game, as a team, personally that didn’t how we wanted to end last year. Felt like that wasn’t necessarily a representative sample of the players on the team that we were.
After the West Virginia game, I think in that locker room, there were a lot of heads that were not held low. A lot of guys had their heads up. All right, this is the last time this is happening. This isn’t happening again.
Being able to play a team like that, the way that we did, kind of physically dominate them up front, do some things, we kind of felt like, All right, this thing could happen. We got to really put our foot down and go do it.
DIMITRI HOLLOWAY: I think the moment for me was honestly towards the end of camp when we were going to go into West Virginia. Back then I wasn’t actually practicing due to my ham. I just heard certain conversations and things like that that was going on on the sideline with the defense as a whole, just on the offensive side, seeing how the guys clicked out there.
We was just going, battling and different things like that during the hard camp day. You have the offense and defense chirping at each other, going back and forth on the practice field. You saw the competition level. That is when I knew right there.
RASHAD ROBINSON: For me, I would say the Villanova game. It was a top-five matchup. I believe we were down 10 in the middle of the fourth quarter. The way we fought back, offense picked us up, defense got four turnovers in the fourth quarter alone, three or four turnovers.
The way we overcame adversity in that game, close CAA matchup like Villanova, top five matchup, I believe when we got in the locker room after that game, everyone looked around like We really can do this thing.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll dismiss the student-athletes and then we’ll take questions for the coach.
Q. You mentioned on the teleconference last week your father will be watching the game back home. What have your conversations been like with him, talking about this opportunity? Any advice from him?
CURT CIGNETTI: He got out of the hospital today actually. He’s been in Pittsburgh, Mercy. He’s going with my sister. So he’ll watch the game with her.
I haven’t really talked to him. I talked to him yesterday briefly. Quite as much here lately, the prognosis, rehab has been really good. So not a lot of football talk really, to be quite honest with you.
Q. You’ve been a part of many teams. This one is pretty special in some ways. What makes this group special? What is their personality?
CURT CIGNETTI: This is a great football team, with a lot of guys that have played a lot of football, a lot of really good players, exceptional players at their position. Good personalities. Good leadership. There’s a great culture at JMU with the tradition and the success of the past.
It’s been talked about, they got off track maybe just a little bit last year with their focus. They realize that. I think I was lucky and fortunate really to be able to coach this team. But we had a plan and we knew what we wanted and improved the team without question.
But this team kind of got it after a while, kind of what I was looking for, which are those crisp, short practices, focused in, locked in, this play is over, tear off the rearview mirror, never too high, never too low.
Practice is kind of like a game, really fast (snapping fingers). You got to have six seconds a play. The play is going to have a history of its own. Focused in on the right things. Played consistently throughout the season. Practiced that way also. Handled business that way also.
We had no off-the-field problems at all with this team. These guys have played a lot of ball together. So here we are ready to go.
Q. Talk about your special teams a little bit. Could be a big factor tomorrow, especially with the unpredictable weather.
CURT CIGNETTI: Special teams is huge. We made some really big plays on special teams lately. We’ve had a few negative plays throughout the season also. But, you know, I think it’s going to be critical tomorrow. We’ve done a nice job with our punt, Harry pinning people back. Amos has done a good job with the return. Blocked some punts. We also have prohibited fake punts. We blocked quite a few field goals. Alert for a fake there.
Ratke has been pretty consistent. Kicked the ball very well this week in practice. Our kickoff return game has really been good. Most people don’t kick to us. I think North Dakota State will because that’s what they do. They have good coverage.
I expect the wind will be a factor. We don’t know what it’s going to be. I’ve seen anywhere from 15 to 30 miles an hour. It’s going to be very important at the end of every special teams play that you retain possession of the ball.
We’ve got to catch the punts. Same thing on kickoff return. So everybody talks more about offense, but teams, that’s a good question.
Q. Is there one thing in your time at Alabama under Nick Saban that you take with you in coaching every single game?
CURT CIGNETTI: Well, Nick had a way. When Nick went to Alabama, he had been head coach at Michigan State six, seven years, was at LSU two or three, Dolphins for two. He knew what he wanted to do.
Every day was a great learning experience. Every day was like fourth-and-one. There was a great sense of urgency. Yeah, there’s a whole lot of things there, yes. But I was the son of a coach, too. As you go on, this is year nine, you kind of develop your own mode, so to speak. I think the base and the core is very similar in a lot of things I learned there. Then you incorporate things you think fit this particular situation.
Q. You’re coaching for your first championship in your first season. So is Coach Entz. What has made him so successful?
CURT CIGNETTI: The North Dakota State program, what it’s accomplished, it’s unprecedented over the years. Coach has been there a while. He understands how it’s run. He’s done a great job in his first season.
Regardless of what you say, being the head coach and assistant coach is a totally different thing. You learn so much really in year two from year one.
But look at them. They’re 15-0. They’re in the top statistically in almost every category in the conference. They’ve been No. 1 throughout the whole season. Have not played in very many close games.
He was able to hire great people. He has really good players. They have a system, a way of doing things. They haven’t skipped a beat. So he’s done a great job.
Q. We talked about the weather, what could happen or not. Your staff this year at least from the outside looking in have been able to adjust and adapt, make adjustments in game. Talk about how that experience this year could help you in maybe having to adjust from the first quarter to the second quarter with the weather being iffy.
CURT CIGNETTI: Wind could definitely be a factor in the game. I guess we’re not really going to know until tomorrow. But it is going to be cold, too.
Fortunately we’ve played quite a few cold-weather games here recently. We practice outside in the cold. We do have an indoor also, but we practice outside. We’re used to playing in the cold weather. Doesn’t affect us.
I kind of like the weather forecast, to be honest with you. But the game’s going to be won out there between the lines. We’ll see what happens.
Q. It’s been a big year on the other side for Trey Lance, the quarterback for the Bison. How do you contain him in this game?
CURT CIGNETTI: Best way to contain any quarterback really is to put pressure on him in the pass game, hit him a lot. They have design quarterback runs. Get multiple hats to the ball, hit him hard.
Now, that hasn’t happened very often to him because they have really good players across the board on the offensive line, wide receiver, running back. The multiplicity of their offense is such you can’t hone in on one or two things because they’re so multiple in what they do. Week-to-week some things show up, then you don’t see them again for three or four weeks.
So but look, if we want to play good defense, we got to stop the run. We have to create turnovers, limit the explosive plays, get them off the field on third down.
Q. Coach Montgomery won the coordinator of the year award. What does it mean for the team to have someone with his experience, head coaching experience?
CURT CIGNETTI: I hired him because he was an experienced guy. I was looking for new ideas. I’m involved offensively. I think it’s more a testament to the offensive staff, every guy coaching on offense, because the offense was sort of a creation. Some things that were done at Elon, some things done at Youngstown and Charlotte, some new things.
One guy always gets the credit, but a lot of people contribute to that. But Shane has done an outstanding job.
Q. Ron’Dell said yesterday the seniors on this team have been really good about keeping one another accountable in moments when they’re away from the coaching staff. Having a guy like that who is not only one of the best players but also that sort of leader, what has he meant to the success of the program?
CURT CIGNETTI: It’s really hard to quantify something like that because Ron’Dell has such a huge personality. When he talks, people listen. So to have leadership that steps up off the field in those moments that you don’t even know about, you have no idea about, a lot of great teams have that kind of guy.
I think we got those kind of guys. But there always is one alpha dog. I think for the whole team, when Ron’Dell talks, people listen.
THE MODERATOR: That concludes today’s press conference.
CURT CIGNETTI: Thank you.