"This past week has been one of those weeks in our profession, and in the life of a college football player, that's just really difficult."
Those were some of Mike Houston's first words following JMU's 48-31 win over Rhode Island on Saturday. JMU broke the 40-point mark for the first time in six weeks and maintained a 17-point lead throughout much of the second half; in the post-game press conference, Houston called the performance "gutsy."
"I know a lot of people go through weeks like that," Houston remarked, "but you know, we've had so much success, and we have such high expectations for ourselves — to go out and play the way we did last week [at New Hampshire] was extremely disappointing."
OUR COMPARE TOOL: Towson's Offense v. JMU's Defense
Indeed, JMU has entered the 'Victim of Its Own Success' portion of the dynastic life cycle. After an opening volley of blowouts, JMU has navigated the last six weeks of its surprisingly tough schedule with mixed success. Public criticism has ranged from the reasonable ("Wasn't the run game supposed to be better than this?") to the unreasonable ("North Dakota State would never struggle like this.") to the downright stupid ("We should fire OC Donnie Kirkpatrick and find someone better.")
The challenges JMU has faced are not insignificant. Houston and his staff had to replace its award-winning quarterback, the left side of its offensive line, much of its wide receiver corps, its interior defensive linemen and all secondary players not named Jimmy Moreland. In the wake of those seismic departures, Madison has lost… three games. Two FCS games and a $425,000 game to NC State. That's not exactly the Washington Generals.
And yet… by Houston's own admission, there have been moments that don't live up to Madison's cerulean expectations. The New Hampshire game was the second Saturday of this season that marked a noticeable departure from the Harrisonburg norm. With two games left in the regular season, a program that's used to a comfortable struggle was suddenly faced with an uncomfortable challenge: beat Rhode Island, or your season could end in November.
"This game dictates the shape of our season," sixth-year tailback Cardon Johnson told me last week, ahead of the contest with the Rams. "We win these next two, we're solid in the playoffs. If we stumble, things could go the other direction. So I think the main approach for us is to get back to being us."
I, like most other five-foot-ten mathletes who played tennis in high school, am not a smart enough football analyst to offer a complete list of all of the things that JMU does over the course of a 60-minute football game. I know Houston tells me many things when I've asked what makes this team successful. He talks about being physical at the point of contact. He talks about running the ball effectively and stopping the run. He talks about discipline, and effort, and doing your job.
Past that, it's hard for me to say what the James Madison Dukes have to do, as Johnson put it, to "get back to being us." The offense certainly looked good against the Rams on Saturday, which earned quarterback Ben DiNucci a conference nod for Offensive Player of the Week. I can't help but wonder if the losses will help a young JMU team learn about itself. In some cases, I think losing is an important step in learning what it takes to win.
"Adversity reveals genius," the Roman poet Horace once said. "Prosperity conceals it."
Roll the tapes back a couple of seasons. That JMU team that won the national championship? Lost in the 2016 euphoria was an unnecessarily harrowing win at New Hampshire. Nursing a 42-12 lead in the fourth quarter, JMU's defense surrendered four unanswered touchdowns in the final ten minutes, eventually clinging to a 42-39 win.
The Wildcats didn't lose that game; they simply ran out of time. Houston and his staff transformed the Durham defensive meltdown into a key teaching moment over the following week of practice.
JMU played eight more games that season, winning all eight. It won seven by double digits.
Let's return to 2018, where Johnson and the rest of the team understand the weight of the moment.
"At New Hampshire," Johnson said, "you just didn't see the same JMU Football that you normally see." That's true.
I do not know if JMU can win every remaining game in the 2018 season. It seems like an unlikely proposition, starting as soon as this week, when the Dukes go to Towson to face the CAA's inevitable Offensive Player of the Year, Tom Flacco.
All I can say is this: Mike Houston and the Dukes have a habit of turning difficult weeks into productive seasons. Before this JMU team could ever be great, it was going to need a few moments where it looked painfully bad.
JMU fans have seen the adversity. Now, on the eve of the playoffs, they're hoping for a little bit of genius.
MORE CAA: Stony Brook Needed a Win over Delaware | Is JMU Still Elite?
MORE FCS: The Missouri Valley is Cannibalizing Itself Out of Bids
MORE PLAYOFFS: Our Updated Playoff Projections | Everything you Need to Know for the FCS Selection Show