From the Dukes’ captains to their head coach, from leaders to role players, the message has been clear: No one in purple and gold will be content without finishing the journey embarked upon in August — a national championship.
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The celebratory and Frisco, Texas-appropriate guitar strumming and piano plinking of Alabama’s “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” had concluded at Bridgeforth Stadium, as had No. 2 James Madison’s decisive 30-14 national semifinal triumph over visiting and third-seeded Weber State. The victory streamers had fallen about the seats and now laid at rest, some scattered on the field. The late-December nighttime scene in chilly Harrisonburg, Va. had all the makings of a storybook ending. But, in fact, for these JMU Dukes, it spelled just the beginning of a final march to a goal established just after first-year head coach Curt Cignetti’s arrival in the Shenandoah Valley.
“This means everything,” JMU Consensus First Team All-American defensive end Ron’Dell Carter said of the team’s upcoming opportunity to secure the program’s second national championship in four years. “For me, [it’s] the last three years. My first year here, we lose in the national championship. Last year, we lose in a heartbreaker to Colgate, and now this year, we get to bounce back and prove to everybody why we belong here.”
Quarterback and CAA Offensive Player of the Year Ben DiNucci shared similar sentiments in regards to the Dukes’ chance to reclaim the FCS throne.
“It kinda brings this thing full-circle for us and I know for me in particular, one of the main reasons I decided to come here two years ago was for that [national championship] opportunity,” the redshirt senior and Pittsburgh transfer said. “The tradition that’s been here and is still here is unbelievable, and just being able to be a part of this whole thing is awesome. After last year ended [with a second-round playoff loss at Colgate], I think our entire locker room can probably tell you we weren’t happy with how that thing ended. At the beginning of this year, we kinda made it a point that we want to beat everybody that we play this year and beside from that first game [at West Virginia], we’ve done a good job… It’s a surreal feeling being able to go play for a national championship, but reality is we’ve gotta win it, so we’re not gonna be happy until we get the job done down there.”
That focus is driven in large part by the prevailing desire to play for the squad’s upperclassmen who have experienced adversity and prior postseason defeats, including 2017’s tight national title loss to fellow perennial powerhouse North Dakota State, Carter explained.
“I want to do it for a lot of the seniors, man. Rashad [Robinson, JMU’s All-American corner] and Dimitri [Holloway, the Dukes’ standout linebacker] got one [national championship ring], but for Dimitri, he didn’t play in the national championship two years ago, three years ago,” Carter said. “The first time when they won it [he was hurt] and the second year when we went, he was hurt again… This is for guys like that. I don’t tell them that, but they’re motivation. When I look and see Rashad out there after having a drastic injury last year and didn’t play, and Dimitri had his injury and came back and bounced back, now he’s an All-American this year. That’s now my motivation right there… I get to go out there and look to my left, look to my right, I see them, I look behind me, I see those linebackers and those DBs… I’m like, ‘This is what we do it for.’”
Robinson echoed those thoughts, commenting that his team “saw the older guys that felt that hurt feeling in 2017 when we walked off that field [in Frisco], so those guys want to make sure we get that job done.”
The task is no small one: taking down the North Dakota State Bison, the mammoth program of the FCS in the 2010s that has seized control of the national conversation. In 2016, James Madison invaded the vaunted Fargodome and knocked off NDSU in a memorable semifinal game to steal the spotlight, but it will take a comparable effort to derail the Bison’s express toward a potential eighth championship in nine years this Saturday.
“NDSU is NDSU. We know who they are,” Carter continued. “We know the type of offense they run, we know what type of defense they run, we know who they are as a team. They’re a very tough opponent; there’s no secret about that. They’re the number-one team in the nation. Now, we just gotta go out there and show who we are. Every single week, we’ve shown who JMU was. We play our style of play each and every single week. Now, it’s the national championship and a lot is on the line, but at the end of the day, it’s still one game, and I’m sure Coach Cignetti is gonna preach that like he’s always been doing.”
Cignetti’s words in the aftermath of the win over Weber State were more than consistent with that approach.
“This team’s been on a mission all year long and they won’t be satisfied until they get what they want,” he remarked.
A big piece of that puzzle will be stopping the run, which has been a major aspect of the Dukes’ season-long identity in 2019. They limited Weber State — which employs an offense that tends to feature the run game — to just 70 rushing yards. On top of that feat, James Madison ranks first nationally in rushing defense with 61.1 yards allowed per game and yields just 2.22 yards per carry to the opposition.
Said Carter, “That’s what we preach. Stop the run, and everything else takes care of itself. Once you stop the run on a team, now they become one-dimensional, now let’s rush the passer. We got me, Mike [Greene], Deeb [Atariwa], and [John] Daka on the field, let us go do our thing. The only way that can happen is if we stop the run and we do a great job of that. With our linebackers filling, with Dimitri [Holloway] and Landan [Ward] filling those holes like they do, Wayne [Davis, the Ohio State transfer at safety] coming off the edge, the rest of the D-line, and then the DBs strapping it down out there, it just makes everything so much easier. So, first and second down, you stop the run. Third down, let’s go have fun.”
Although JMU has really hit its stride in the playoffs, enjoying home field and maximizing defensive efficiency en route to a quarterfinal shutout of Northern Iowa along the way, the Dukes hit a rocky juncture in their season with their October 5 trip to Stony Brook, which ended up being a pivotal 45-38 overtime win on Long Island.
“Having that experience of knowing what it’s like to have a nail-biter and being able to come out on top, that’s going to be critical for us, especially because this game can go either way, man,” Carter summarized about Saturday’s heavyweight tilt pitting the programs that have combined for the last eight FCS championships. “We got two good teams going head-to-head, toe-to-toe against each other.”