James Madison lost last weekend — for the third time this year. Dukes fans haven't felt this way since 2015, and they've wondered — how will this JMU team perform in the FCS playoffs now that a slew of consecutive home playoff games will not happen?
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As a University of Florida graduate, I get it. I've seen both sides of it — the dominance and the doubting. As a 20-year old kid working for his hometown paper, I remember covering Steve Spurrier's teams slaughtering LSU and Auburn back-to-back in mid 1996 and wondering — geez, nobody will ever touch this team again?
So naive. Of course they'd get knocked off that pedestal. Within weeks, I might add.
I know the past few years have brought with it a bit of a sense of invincibility for James Madison fans, and rightfully so. Your program brought itself up to on par with North Dakota State, practically overnight. That is no small feat. Both matchups between these FCS titans were grudge matchups. Then this season came along with two conference losses — especially a biggie to New Hampshire on the road this past weekend — and fans are reeling and wondering, "Could we be a quick out in the FCS Playoffs?"
I don't think so, gang. This week, I thought there'd be no one better to ask about "bouncing back" when people may have thought it was "over" than Cardon Johnson, the running back and 1,000-yard rusher in 2015 who missed substantial time during both Frisco runs in 2016 and 2017. The truth is, he's still here and hellbent on actually playing in Frisco once in his career. I'd contend that he is an example of what JMU is heading into the 2018 postseason.
The turnovers last week, the worries, the big loss to a hungry UNH team — Cardon gets the roller coaster ride effect.
"You learn to understand things in life that you have to go through, and you learn to keep a positive mindset," Johnson told me earlier this week. "You're going to have stumbles in the road, but you must have mental toughness and be strong-minded. For me? I can't say I did it all by myself to get back. You have to lean on the people closest to you, have a good support system and keep the spirits high and driven."
That's pretty good advice heading into the final two games of the regular season and beyond.
See that's the thing — I think if you've paid any attention to this program since day one in 2016, you realize that this support structure is in place. And when adjustments have had to be made — as with losing leading rusher Johnson in 2016 after he got off to a hot start — the program has made that adjustment. I have a feeling from here on out this team leans on its defense — No. 6 in the nation, statistically, mind you — a bit more in the coming weeks and in the playoffs. I have a feeling the run game comes more into play and tightens up, and guys like Riley Stapleton make that clutch catch when needed.
The UNH loss was a punch in the craw and a reminder that the CAA is a gauntlet this year. Well, the FCS Playoffs are too, so mentally one must be bowed up and ready. This isn't a program that is going to fold, no matter how ugly the trip to Durham was last weekend.
I mean really, do you think any FCS program is going to be thrilled to see JMU on its side of the bracket when it is announced Nov. 18 — three losses or not?
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