Winning CAA title special for JMU

James Madison's Cardon Johnson (25) runs in the first half of a game against North Carolina on Sept. 17. The Dukes have clinched the CAA title and a playoff berth. AP

HARRISONBURG — It was only fitting that James Madison University had a little adversity to overcome to pick up the outright Colonial Athletic Association title last weekend.

The Dukes, undefeated in the conference, won the CAA title with their victory over Villanova and a loss by New Hampshire to Albany.

The seniors on the team have had three different coaches in four years, including current first-year coach Mike Houston.

“I would say it definitely means a little more,” JMU redshirt senior Mitchell Kirsch said after practice Tuesday. “It’s the last one. You’re kind of running around having no regrets. No reserves, no retreats, no regrets and just having fun with it.”

The Dukes (9-1) beat Villanova, 20-7, despite having starting quarterback Bryan Schor suffer an injury on the first play of the second quarter. Freshman Cole Johnson, who hadn’t played all season, entered the game and helped lead the Dukes to the win and the title.

“I thought we came ready to play,” Houston said. “I thought we came out playing at an extremely high level. I thought we saw a tremendous amount of adversity throughout the game and I was very, very pleased with the way our kids responded and rallied together. They were very positive on the sidelines and really bounced back and played very, very well all throughout the game, and our defense came up with some big stops and big turnovers in the second half.”

JMU’s defense held Villanova to 239 yards of offense, and came up with some key turnovers.

JMU tight end and Jonathan Kloosterman said that it was nice to achieve a goal the team has been working for all season.

“It’s fantastic,” Kloosterman said on Tuesday. “We knew when coach Houston came here our goal was to win the CAA title, and to be able to do that without having any blemishes on our record yet — that’s big time. We put in a lot of work for it and the coaches put in a lot of work all summer. We definitely worked for it to be able to have that trophy — there’s nothing better.”

Houston said he felt like the chemistry of the team and the coaches has played a part in the team’s 9-1 record this season. He said the team really came together in the third, fourth and fifth weeks of the regular season.

“I think the big thing with our staff is I tried to hire really, really good men,” Houston said. “They have invested in these kids, the kids responded. Everybody’s on the same page. I think we’re a pretty tight knit group, especially for the fact that we’ve only been together for 10 months. And I think really that chemistry has led to the success we’ve had. Just the achievement together and how they all feel like they’re invested and they all feel like they’re contributing I think it made it a pretty special deal for us there on Saturday.”

Houston said he was especially happy with the play of the defense last week. He said they’ve continued to improve, especially over the last three games.

He said they will need the defense to continue to play well as they head into the playoffs.

“I think the big thing it shows us is that we can win a game like that,” Houston said. “I think it shows a lot of toughness. I’ve had a lot of games like that in my career, and my experience is the further you get down the road and the further you advance in the playoffs the more games you’re going to have like that. Because you start dwindling down, you’re seeing the top teams in the country. So we got to be able to have that kind of performance where we have a great defensive effort and we’re able to really grind out the yards on offense.”

The Football Championship Subdivision committee announced on Tuesday night that JMU was the fourth seed in the current playoff rankings. On Sunday the committee will release the final rankings and the playoff pairings.

Kirsch said that while the Dukes are happy to win the CAA title, they know they have a lot more ahead.

“We’re looking toward the playoffs and going as far as we can possibly go,” Kirsch said. “We think we have a good chance of going all the way this year.”

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