JMU players, coaches looking forward to the playoffs

HARRISONBURG — With a Colonial Athletic Association title, and a stellar regular season behind them, James Madison University’s football team is eager for the playoffs.

The Dukes (10-1) are the No. 4 seed in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. JMU will have a first-round bye and will play the winner of New Hampshire and Lehigh at 2 p.m., on Dec. 3 at JMU’s Bridgeforth Stadium.

“Our team is very excited to be the No. 4 team in the national playoffs,” JMU head coach Mike Houston said Sunday after the team viewed the selection show. “We’re excited to get to the bye and to have at least the second round game here in Harrisonburg. We look forward to playing the winner of Lehigh and New Hampshire — two quality football programs.”

JMU players and coaches watched the FCS selection show together inside the club level of Bridgeforth Stadium, and celebrated as it was announced they were the fourth seed.

The Dukes defeated New Hampshire, a fellow CAA squad, 42-39 on the road on Oct. 15.

Houston said they will prepare this week for both New Hampshire and Lehigh.

“We might spend just a little bit more on Lehigh just because it’s an opponent we have not seen, but we’ll certainly focus on New Hampshire this week as well,” Houston said.

Having the second round game, and possibly a quarterfinal game at home could be an advantage for the Dukes.

“I think the fan base here is amazing, and so playing at home it’s something special,” JMU redshirt senior offensive lineman Matt Frank said. “We’re obviously comfortable here, but just looking around and having the support of the JMU family and everyone in the local area it’s awesome. You can’t ask for something better than to start off the playoffs at home.”

The Dukes are one of four CAA teams in the playoffs along with New Hampshire, the University of Richmond and Villanova University.

Five-time defending champion North Dakota State is the top seed in the playoffs, followed by Eastern Washington and Jacksonville State.

With the bye this week the players will be able to go home for Thanksgiving. Houston said they will have an early practice on Wednesday so that the players won’t have to be on the road Wednesday night.

“With the opportunity to have the bye we want to get everybody as much rest as possible, but I also think it’s important for them to be with their families on Thanksgiving,” Houston said. “It’s really a special year when you can achieve what we achieved in the regular season — be one of the top teams in the country going into the playoffs — but also be able to share that Thanksgiving with their families.”

JMU redshirt senior linebacker and Warren County graduate Gage Steele said that the Dukes are only focused on the next game and will not be looking ahead in the playoffs.

“We’re just going to focus on the two teams that it’s possible that we’re going to play next round,” Steele said. “We ain’t looking to far ahead in the bracket. We’re focused on the next game just because that’s the next game, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Whether that’s Lehigh or New Hampshire that comes out on top, we’re going to be ready. And I really believe the coaching staff is going to have the best plan set up for us to be successful.”

The Dukes have been battling injuries toward the end of the regular season. Starting quarterback Bryan Schor missed the regular-season finale with an injury as did redshirt junior running back Cardon Johnson. JMU redshirt senior offensive lineman Mitch Kirsch left Saturday’s game with an injury.

Houston said the bye week should help the players that are injured.

“Right now looking at it we would optimistically anticipate to be at full strength by December 3rd,” Houston said.

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