Dukes excited to be back in the FCS playoffs

HARRISONBURG — James Madison University will be making its first playoff appearance since 2011 on Saturday when it hosts Liberty University at 4 p.m. at Bridgeforth Stadium.

The playoff teams were selected and announced Sunday, and the Dukes are very excited to be back in the postseason.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” JMU quarterback Vad Lee said in a news conference on Sunday. “We’re certainly excited that we get the opportunity to play in the playoffs. Just to extend the season and have one more game with these seniors is really a dream come true.”

The Dukes have won seven consecutive games, including a 59-27 victory over Elon this past Saturday, and finished third in the Colonial Athletic Association.

JMU first-year head coach Everett Withers said he didn’t think about the playoffs before the season. He simply wanted the team to get better and improve with each week.

Withers said they look at each game as an event, and he wanted the team to respond well to each event.

“The end of this deal had nothing to do with playoffs, it had to be about conquering events,” Withers said on Monday at his weekly news conference. “We’re at that point now where we’ve won nine of those events, and had the proper response to nine events. So obviously that gives you the opportunity to play at least one more game.”

HOME SWEET HOME: JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne was a little nervous about whether the Dukes would host against Liberty. Home playoff games in the first round are determined by how much each team bids to host the contest. Bourne and the Dukes have found themselves on the road in the past and Bourne was aware that it wouldn’t be easy to outbid the Flames.

“I didn’t sleep well [Saturday] night and got up very early [Sunday] checking every source I could find. A couple more than a dozen prayers were said over the span of the last 24 hours,” Bourne said in a news conference on Sunday. “We’re looking forward to a great weekend next Saturday. To be here on a Saturday in front of this crowd is a great thing for our team, and I’m happy for everybody in the JMU Nation.”

Bourne said it helped that he has served on the selection committee for the past four years, and learned more about how everything works.

It will be JMU’s first home playoff game since 2008, when the Dukes advanced all the way to the national semifinals.

The players are also very happy to be able to play in front of their fans at Bridgeforth Stadium.

“I know our students are going to come back, everybody’s going to come back,” Lee said. “It’s going to be an electric place. It’s going to be really exciting at JMU this Saturday.”

Withers said that the first 2,500 students to arrive will receive a free “Blackout in Bridgeforth” shirt.

“‘Blackout in Bridgeforth’ — that’s a pretty good deal,” Withers said. “[The game’s] going to be big for the community, obviously for the state of Virginia. You got two schools in the state of Virginia playing in an FCS playoff game — I think that’s huge. That stadium should be really loud and we’re going to need them to be loud.”

SENIOR SUCCESS: JMU honored 17 seniors before the dominant win over Elon this past Saturday. Each senior walked out of the Duke Dog tunnel and shook hands with Withers and then went to midfield to stand with their parents.

“We all can take it back to when we were freshmen, and we were looking up to the seniors,” JMU senior wide receiver DeAndre Smith said after the game. “… Now you’re the head guy, you’re on top, it’s just crazy. And knowing that the season is winding down to the end is just something we really couldn’t imagine. It’s a real emotional moment for all of us.”

Withers said it was an emotional day for him as well.

“What we put them through in January, February and March should be illegal in some states. It really should be,” Withers said. “For those guys to fight through it and then grow and become a tight-knit group, because they’re really tight, and for our coaches to embrace those guys, to me is special. That’s a special group of kids.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com