FRISCO, Texas — James Madison had an early exit from the Division I FCS playoffs last season and Dukes quarterback Ben DiNucci heard the chatter all offseason.
DiNucci threw five interceptions in James Madison’s 23-20 loss against Colgate in the second round of the 2018 playoffs after the Dukes had played in the previous two national title games. Those turnovers stung DiNucci.
“I heard about that probably every week leading up to this year, fans, people outside in the community, but I used it as a motivator,” said DiNucci, who transferred to JMU from Pittsburgh prior to last season. “I was pretty down on myself at first, but like everything you live and you learn. It has made me the player I am today. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior has silenced his critics, leading the Dukes to the national championship game a season later. DiNucci has completed 246 of 345 passes for 3,237 yards and 27 touchdowns with five interceptions through 15 games. During his junior season, DiNucci had 16 touchdowns with 12 interceptions in 13 games.
“Before you win the game, you can’t lose it,” said first-year James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti. “He had to protect the ball better. The numbers speak for themselves.”
James Madison (14-1) plays North Dakota State (15-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, at Toyota Stadium with the game being televised on WDAY-TV (ABC).
The Dukes opened the season at West Virginia, an FBS opponent in the Big 12 Conference. James Madison lost that game 20-13, but has won 14 in a row since.
“That first snap against West Virginia, all offseason I’ve been hearing about Colgate this, Colgate that, so really that first snap was I could put that behind me,” DiNucci said.
DiNucci leads an offense that is averaging 41.3 points per game entering the championship game. Junior running back Percy Agyei-Obese has rushed for 1,143 yards and 19 touchdowns on 241 attempts. Senior wide receiver Brandon Polk has 73 receptions for 1,173 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“It all starts on the offensive side with their quarterback,” Bison head coach Matt Entz said of DiNucci. “As good a quarterback that’s probably out there at the FCS level, maybe in the country. Unbelievably efficient with the football, doesn’t turn it over. He can continue to extend plays with his feet, find receivers downfield.”
Cignetti said the Dukes had an open competition at quarterback last spring and DiNucci won the starting job during fall camp.
“He won it in the fall, and aside from really kind of a bad turnover at West Virginia in the fourth quarter, he's done a good job protecting the ball,” Cignetti said. “It's not perfect yet. Every once in a while that ball's out there a little bit too much, but his touchdown-interception ratio is really, really good. And he's played as well as any quarterback in the country this season.”
James Madison star defensive end Ron’Dell Carter said DiNucci has emerged as one of the team leaders this season. Carter has 11.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for a loss.
The Dukes and DiNucci have made that Colgate loss a distant memory.
“He puts that all that behind him,” Carter said. “He’s been very efficient. I’ve been proud to see Ben step up and be who he is. … Everyone respects him in the locker room.”
DiNucci credits his offensive line and the weapons surrounding him for his impressive senior season. Senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton has 55 catches for 688 yards and eight touchdowns to complement Polk, who is a Penn State transfer.
Dukes tight end Dylan Stapleton, Riley’s brother, has 29 catches for 360 yards and a score.
The Bison have the top scoring defense in the FCS, allowing 11.8 points per game.
“We’ve got guys everywhere and we feel like any time we step on the field the defense we go against will have a hard time stopping us,” DiNucci said. “We understand we have our work cut out for us, but this is the national championship. This is what you ask for.”