JMU fans are going to enjoy this one.
For the second time in three years, JMU (14-1) has beaten Weber State in a playoff game. The Dukes are on their way to Frisco for the third time in four years, and the golden age of JMU Athletics is still pretty darn golden. A highly-anticipated date with a familiar midwestern frienemy is just 19 days away.
Much as the fans might like to compare themselves to North Dakota State, though, JMU doesn’t quite have the dynastic pedigree that follows the green-and-gold horde in Fargo, North Dakota. As of this moment, the Bison have won 36 straight games, including a pair of wins in Frisco.
JMU… well, it doesn’t quite have that.
In fact, while North Dakota State (15-0) has thrived for three dozen games now, the last two years of JMU Football’s existence have been fraught with dizzying highs and soul-sucking lows that would cause vertigo in all but the most seasoned of sports fans.
There have been compelling P5 upset bids and shocking home conference losses. There have been underwhelming playoff survivals and incredible overtime victories.
Even Game of Thrones finally ended.
All of this… over the course of the decade?
No. Just since the last time that JMU hosted Weber State in a high-stakes playoff game.
JMU’s thrilling 2017 playoff win over Weber – you know, when Ethan Ratke booted a 46-yarder through the goalpost at the gun, with music from Titanic seemingly hitting its crescendo in the background – those theatrics set the stage for a two-year whirlwind of emotions.
Like a moon-bound rocket blasting off from Cape Canaveral, the 2017 Weber win catapulted JMU into a dramatic slugfest against South Dakota State, with a trip to Frisco on the line. But Harrisonburg couldn’t even reach kickoff without exploding – during the leadup to the semifinal, beloved head coach Mike Houston signed a shocking 10-year extension with JMU.
The signing came out of left field – no one was ready for it – and even though it was obvious at the time to most seasoned football fans that Houston would never stay at JMU for a decade, the energy it added to that season’s final home game was nuclear. The Dukes dominated its mighty Missouri Valley foe by turning the Jackrabbits over 10 times, laughing its way to a 51-16 victory. (I still struggle to believe that stat is real.)
Two weeks later, the Dukes’ 26-game win streak was ended in the national championship by North Dakota State, which avenged its own playoff loss from a year prior. The 17-13 heavyweight bout was an instant classic, one of the best games the subdivision has ever produced.
From Frisco, the two teams’ paths diverged. After the graduation of the 2017 “Schor Core,” third-year head coach Mike Houston was breaking in a new bumper crop of playmakers. JMU was assigned a sensible No. 2 preseason ranking, seemingly affirming its lofty status with a close loss in Raleigh to top-40 NC State. Gleeful blowouts over in-state rivals Richmond and William & Mary confirmed what we thought we already knew – the Dukes were still dominant.
But cracks in the façade started to show. JMU’s 3-year home win streak was suddenly snapped by pesky Elon and upstart coach Curt Cignetti in October; the next month, quarterback Ben DiNucci had a terrible game in New Hampshire, as the Wildcats didn’t just upset the Dukes – they rolled them, in a 35-24 game that wasn’t nearly that close.
The loss ultimately put the Houstonian Dukes in an unfamiliar position – playing on Thanksgiving weekend, slated for a road game in the second round. The Dukes fended off rival Delaware in a first-round rock fight, doing enough to advance, but not enough to allay growing concerns among the fanbase that the 2018 team was not a contender.
Then, all hell broke loose. In the middle of playoff prep, Houston was linked to a head coaching vacancy with the Charlotte 49ers. Other schools were getting involved in the Houston sweepstakes, too, so Charlotte – a young FBS program that maybe felt it needed to create an advantage for itself in the coaching carousel – leaked that Houston was their guy before the season ever ended, in an effort to put pressure on Houston and stave off would-be suitors. By mid-week, the Houston Sweepstakes/Playoff Game Love Triangle had become a complete circus, with regional media invading routine press conferences and communications staffers scrambling to keep the focus on the game at hand.
Mercifully, Saturday finally arrived, but December was no longer a pleasant month for Mike Houston and the Dukes. In a game that really hasn't been mentioned much at all this year, DiNucci threw five interceptions for the second time in 30 days, and mighty JMU bowed out of the playoffs in the second round.
Houston left town the next day, with Madison putting out a short statement that he had accepted another position at an FBS school. (It was East Carolina.) JMU fans, just 12 months removed from the apex of the program, felt rudderless and underwhelmed. Disillusioned fans wondered whether DiNucci could ever lead the team to a national championship; boosters wondered what the realistic expectations were around head coach retention in this brave new world. It was a full-blown crisis of confidence, seeded by former coach Everett Withers, but brought on by Houston’s inevitable departure.
For many fans, JMU was in the midst of a full-blown Red Wedding scenario – a talented young up-and-comer, pursuing vengeance against a past foe, undone too early by an unforeseen betrayal.
Realistically, though, Mike Houston was always too young and too talented to ever stay in Harrisonburg for more than a handful of years. This wasn’t Walder Frey and the Rains of Castamere; this was a high school mathlete who believed a cheerleader had fallen in love with his personality, only to discover she simply wanted help passing Algebra 2. The truth tasted bitter.
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A few weeks later, JMU nailed another head coaching hire, luring Cignetti away from Elon. Evaluating Cignetti was like watching Leonardo Da Vinci operate from a humble, Florentine studio, before he was suddenly whisked away by adoring patrons to a grand Venetian palace. If Cignetti could win at Elon – 12 wins, 45 losses in the five-year period before his arrival – what could he do helming the Cadillac of the Colonial?
Like Houston before him, Cignetti used the pedigree, budget and facilities of the JMU program to assemble a top-notch staff, in part by poaching defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman from reigning CAA champion Maine. As the year progressed, JMU fans grew increasingly optimistic. DiNucci worked with a quarterback coach in the off-season, and the program scored a key transfer at wide receiver in Penn State product Brandon Polk. The offensive woes of 2018 might be a thing of the past, and the defense would return an all-star cast.
The Dukes lost their opener to West Virginia, but the way it happened – three turnovers for JMU, including one in the shadow of its own end zone – it almost felt like West Virginia had pulled the upset, and not the other way around.
From there, the Dukes piled up gaudy wins, breezing through four September games as Cignetti’s new offense settled into place.
Stony Brook and Villanova offered the midseason pushback that JMU teams have often benefited from. The game on Long Island offered a little bit of everything – far too many fumbles from JMU skill players, plus some questionable pass coverage from JMU’s secondary and some equally questionable calls from CAA Referees. For Villanova’s part, quarterback Daniel Smith continued his early-season brilliance in Harrisonburg, positioning his team close to a massive win in Harrisonburg before the JMU defense eventually won the day.
Games against the Seawolves and Wildcats rightfully left many FCS fans – including quite a few that wear purple on Saturdays – thinking that JMU was the class of the CAA, but maybe not the class of the FCS. The team was quite good, but maybe not national championship good.
But by November, the Dukes had locked in. A merciful bye on Nov. 2 finally gave Madison a week off after nine straight games; the result was a rested team that looked prepared for a deep playoff run. The offense was merciless, averaging 56 points per game over the next month. The defense was vicious and violent, wrecking protections up front and forcing opposing quarterbacks to play from behind. Throws into tight man coverage were required, and with the high quality of defensive backs that JMU continues to produce, that’s simply not a winning strategy for most teams.
Late in the playoffs, Cignetti’s differences from Houston really began to show. JMU began boa constricting teams like UNI and Weber, running massive chunks of clock and clamping down on defense so that neither team had any sort of reasonable chance to get back in the game. The Dukes looked far more comfortable going for it on fourth down, too – they’re 7-for-7 on fourth down in these 2019 playoffs.
When the JMU offense ticked the final seconds off the clock against Weber State, it was time for a well-earned celebration. The players piled together in the north end zone, in the shadow of the Marching Royal Dukes, jumping and shoving and shouting in ecstasy. Even a casual observer might have walked away with the impression that their joy wasn’t only about where they were going next, but the places they had to endure to get there.
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Houston preached balance during his three years in Harrisonburg; he never wanted the team to be overly reliant on one side of the ball, or one individual offensive weapon. It’s a little ironic, then, that Cignetti’s 2019 team is arguably the best, most balanced JMU team ever. The 2016 team had a great defense, but they were a team powered by offensive fireworks, first and foremost. The opposite is true for the 2017 team, with its elite defensive backfield and mind-blowing turnover numbers.
This 2019 team, though? It’s the first team in JMU history to have a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver. It racks up tackles-for-loss like they’re nothing. This year’s JMU team looks as though it were designed by Thanos himself.
And that’s where JMU fans and players are at, entering a highly anticipated matchup with No. 1 North Dakota State.
From all the time I’ve spent talking with alumni and covering the team, I can tell you that there’s a lot of respect for what the Bison have done, both this year and in year’s past. But I can also tell you that many believe this year’s JMU team is better than this year’s North Dakota State team. Everyone seems to know what a lofty statement that is – there are no beautiful, convenient illusions about a secretly vulnerable Bison team – but if you’ve watch both teams, you know that JMU has a compelling case to make, down in Frisco, on January 11.
Trey Lance and the new-era Bison have a great future ahead of them, and that future might even include a national championship ring as early as next month. No one would be surprised if the Bison lifted another trophy in their favorite January vacation spot.
But to me, this feels like JMU’s year. The ups and downs of the Dukes’ past two years contrast fiercely with the relative youth of this year’s Bison team. North Dakota State is abjectly great, but FCS fans wouldn’t be wrong to think of them as a team that hasn’t experienced real loss on the field. This is a talented and worthy group, but one forged in the fires of its own success.
Put another way: they’re a sweet child of summer.
Both teams are playing for the same championship trophy. But for the winter-hardened players of JMU, as well as the fans that stand behind them, this one could mean just a bit more.
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