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Keeler: Resilient Dukes continue to shine

Tommy Keeler

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

As I sat in the press box for the final seconds of regulation in James Madison University's football game against William and Mary last Saturday, I remember thinking this game is over. There's no way he's missing this.

William and Mary's Drake Kuhn was lining up for what would have been a game-winning 31-yard field goal against JMU. It would have been a big upset and handed the Dukes their first CAA loss of the season.

Instead, Kuhn missed the field goal wide left, and the Dukes went on to win the game 27-26 in double-overtime. It was the second straight week the Dukes had pulled out a close game, and the second time I guessed wrong when thinking they were going to fall. On Oct. 6 against Towson, the Dukes drove 79 yards in the final minutes of the game for the win, after picking up only 181 yards of offense all game.

I think it's safe to say I'm now a believer in the Dukes, who are 5-1, and some of their late-game magic. This team may just have something special, something that could take it a long way in the playoffs.

One thing they have going for them is they never give up. They stay calm, cool and collected under pressure.

With things looking bleak against the Tribe, the Dukes still had faith that things would somehow go their way.

"I was on the sideline with [running back] Dejor [Simmons] and DaeQuan [Scott] and I was just saying it's football," JMU quarterback Justin Thorpe said about the final seconds of regulation. "Nothing is guaranteed, I don't care how short the field goal is. We have the home-field advantage and anything can happen, so don't put our heads down."

One thing championship teams usually have is a great defense. There's no question the Dukes have that. JMU has allowed only 119.2 yards rushing per game.

The defense came up big in the win over the Tribe, stopping William and Mary on the two-point conversion attempt to end the game. Sometimes when a defense is really dominant and the offense is struggling, there can be some animosity between the defense and the offense. There seems to be none of that at JMU.

"I know when offense is out there the defense is just, 'We got this,'" JMU linebacker Stephon Robertson said. "And I'm sure they're the same with us when we're out on the field."

It's not like JMU's offense is that bad. The Dukes have a good balance on offense, and although they prefer to run the ball, they can also air it out. The Dukes are averaging 212.5 yards per game on the ground, and 191.2 yards per game passing.

JMU also has great special teams play, whether it's returning kickoff and punts, blocking punts or having very reliable kickers and punters. JMU coach Mickey Matthews understands the importance of special teams and it shows on the field.

Offense, defense and special teams are important, but what I feel like separates championship teams from other teams are the intangibles. Things like team chemistry and an ability to handle adversity are as important as anything in the world of sports -- they're also things JMU has.

The Dukes have shown an uncanny ability of staying calm and being able to handle pressure.

"We were down 14-0, and like winners do we came back and got the 'W,'" Thorpe said after the win over William and Mary. "We're good at overcoming adversity. That's what coach preaches all the time. That's what we try to go out there and execute. Like coach said last week, that's what championship teams are made of. We're battle tested, I can say that much."

The Dukes still have a tough road ahead of them. They play at Richmond this week, then host Georgia State before going on the road to play Maine and Villanova. They end the regular season at home against rival Old Dominion.

After navigating the tough waters of the CAA, the Dukes would then play in the FCS playoffs, where anything can and probably will happen.

JMU is currently ranked No. 2 in both polls, but don't expect them to get big heads over it. The players said after the win over William and Mary that they don't pay attention to the rankings. They also have a coach in Matthews who has won a national championship and knows how to keep his players focused.

The Dukes also have a strong core of senior leaders, who want nothing more than to finish their final season with a bang.

There's no way to know how the rest of the season will go, but there's no question this team is capable of big things. The one thing I do know for sure is when the game is on the line, I won't keep counting them out.

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com

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