JMU football notebook: Dukes happy with preparation for game

James Madison's Khalid Abdullah runs during the FCS national semifinals against North Dakota State on Dec. 16. The Dukes play Youngstown State University on Saturday in the FCS National Championship game in Frisco, Texas. Courtesy photo/JMU Athletics Communications

HARRISONBURG — With three weeks in between the semifinals and Saturday’s Football Championship Subdivision game in Frisco, Texas, James Madison University head coach Mike Houston said he feels like his team has prepared well for the game.

Houston said the team started preparing for the game against Youngstown State last Wednesday, and practiced hard for four days. They then took a break on Sunday and went to the movies and watched ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ together.

“They really enjoyed getting out and being able to do something like that — just getting away from the mundane day-to-day of practice,” Houston said in his weekly press conference Tuesday. “Then this week we’ve been in more of a playoff mode as far as our practice schedule. It’s more of quality over quantity. Practices are a little bit shorter this week. I think the kids know our game plan. They performed very well at everything. We’re really focused on getting their legs back underneath them. We’re really focused on rest late in the week once we get to Texas.”

The Dukes and the Penguins play at noon Saturday at Toyota Stadium, and the game will be televised on ESPN2. Houston said the Dukes leave for Texas this afternoon.

JMU will be trying for its first FCS national championship since 2004.

JMU senior running back Khalid Abdullah said in a news conference Tuesday that the team is excited and ready for the game.

“I know I speak for a lot of guys when I say I wish we could have played last weekend,” Abdullah said. “This past week has been amazing being able to prepare. It’s what two more college football games left in the season of college football? So it’s just amazing that we’re one of the those last two teams left to play, and we’re going to try to go out there and get the win.”

Unified team: Houston said that one of the biggest keys to success for the team this season has been the bond the players have together.

He said when he first came to JMU last January that was very much not the case.

“When I got here it was a very divided locker room, and it was one where there was no confidence and no cohesion defensively. And the attitude of the offensive players were that the only reason that there was any success was because of them,” Houston said. “So it was not a good situation. And I think that’s probably one of the key factors that led to poor performance in the post-season the last couple years.”

The Dukes, who were coached the last two years by Everett Withers, lost in their first game of the playoffs the last two seasons. Both contests were home games.

Last year the Dukes were the No. 5 seed in the playoffs and lost to Colgate University.

Houston said the seniors played a big role in turning things around under his staff.

“I think it’s a credit to the seniors, the older players in this program, and the kind of character that those kids have in them, that they have bought into us,” Houston said. “They have done virtually everything we have asked them to do from day one, and they have changed themselves completely in the locker room. They have changed themselves completely on the field. We are a different style of team from what they have been in the last couple of years. And really, I do credit (former JMU head coach Mickey) Matthews and some of the players that he brought in his last year because those guys, those are the leaders of the football team and those are the ones that I’m the most proud of.”

Suspension update: Houston said that the seven players who were suspended for the North Dakota State game in the semifinals will not play in the national championship game this week.

“We do have seven players that are suspended indefinitely,” Houston said in a teleconference last week. “They have been suspended for about three weeks now. They will be suspended well beyond the championship game. Everyone who played versus North Dakota State is expected to play on Jan. 7 in Frisco.”

Houston said that he couldn’t say why they were suspended, but he did want to dispel any rumors about performance-enhancing drugs.

“Those seven young men are good kids,” Houston said. “They made a mistake. They are paying for that mistake. There have been a lot of rumors, there’s been a lot of speculation. I will say that none of them were arrested. There was no performance-enhancing drugs or anything like that. They made a mistake and they are paying the consequences.”

Houston said he would not comment about the suspensions any more before the championship game.

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