Steele has storybook ending to stellar JMU career

JMU linebacker Gage Steele (33) prepares to tackle Youngstown State's Jody Webb during Saturday's FCS national championship game in Frisco, Texas. Steele capped off his career with a national championship. AP photo

It was a perfect ending.

James Madison University redshirt senior linebacker Gage Steele couldn’t have scripted the ending to his college football career any better than how it finished Saturday. The 2012 Warren County graduate helped lead the Dukes to the Football Championship Subdivision national championship — the second in program history.

“This is a fairy tale ending to every story you hear about,” Steele said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. “Going through all the coaching changes we’ve gone through as a senior group. All the adversity that we’ve dealt with, with certain coaches and stuff like that, and then to have a coaching staff come in such as Mike Houston and the staff he’s brought in. Going all the way to the national title my final year is pretty much what I’ve dreamed about and more.

“It’s definitely the way that I would want to go out — us being on top. I couldn’t be more thankful for the team that I have, the coaching staff, and I’m truly blessed to be where I’m at and fortunate enough to experience what I have. So it’s definitely an amazing story — that’s for sure.”

JMU beat Youngstown State University, 28-14, Saturday to win the national title in Frisco, Texas. Steele did his part in the championship game with five tackles, two sacks and one pass breakup.

The Dukes held the Penguins, who averaged 257.5 rushing yards per contest, to only 21 rushing yards in the national championship game. Steele said the team wanted to treat the game just like every other game, and he feels like they did a good job with that.

“Starting off the game we knew that we were going to have to come out early and come out fast by stopping the run and trying to make Youngstown one dimensional,” Steele said. “The offense as well coming out fast, coming out strong, getting into the end zone, and that’s what we did. We knew that we were going to have to play a good game that’s for sure, because Youngstown was a very good team. We went out there executed our game plan, and we were very happy with how it turned out.”

Steele said it was also amazing to see the fan support the team had. The crowd was mostly JMU fans, and he said the players really appreciated the support.

“JMU Nation definitely showed up and showed that they cared a lot about us,” Steele said. “When you see the championship stadium about three quarters full of purple — it’s pretty much a home game. That’s definitely what we want in our big games, definitely plays a big role. That’s something that I always say is the fans play a bigger role than they think, just helping out with being the 12th man. When we get those momentum swings and they get loud with us, it’s just something we can feed off of as a team and that helps a lot in big title games, especially the national championship game.”

Steele said that right after the game it felt like just another game, but over the last few days it’s started to sink in what the team accomplished.

“As the days have gone and I’ve seen all the stats, and all the videos, tweets and pictures, all that stuff, it’s actually sinking in more and more each day that we were able to go out there and win that game and get that national title,” Steele said. “So it’s been a pretty amazing feeling over the past couple days realizing what we’ve done as a program, just what we’ve accomplished over the year.”

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Steele finished the season with a team-best 103 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one interception and five pass breakups, despite missing two games early in the season due to injury. He had at least 10 tackles in seven of the last 10 games.

JMU finished last year ranked 77th in the country in scoring defense, this season they finished 16th. The last six games of this season the Dukes allowed only 13.5 points per game. The past two years the Dukes were known for their explosive offense and for trying to outscore opponents. This season they showed that the defense could win games too.

Steele said he was very proud of how far the defense came under first-year head coach Mike Houston, who on Tuesday was named the American Football Coaches Association FCS Coach of the Year, and his staff.

“We started off at the beginning of the year talking as a defense that we want to be a part of these wins and actually help out the offense, not just rely on them to outscore people,” Steele said. “We took that very seriously. At the beginning of the year coach Houston implemented a few things that I feel helped us to be able to execute the way we did this year, with being physical and making sure everybody was doing their job and trusting each other.”

Steele said a real turning point in the season came against the University of New Hampshire on Oct. 15. The Dukes held a 42-12 lead early in the fourth quarter, but gave up 27 points and hung on for a 42-39 victory. He said the team and the defense learned a valuable lesson about finishing games.

The defense also played a key role in a 20-7 victory over Villanova University on Nov. 12. JMU starting quarterback Bryan Schor suffered an injury on the first play of the second quarter and had to be replaced by true freshman Cole Johnson. Steele said the defense knew it had to step up and help win the game and they did.

He said over the last part of the season everything just came together for the defense.

“Everybody started clicking, the communication was very crisp, and everybody was just on the same page,” Steele said. “Pretty much, as you’ve seen the last half of the season, we started being able to make big plays and doing our part when the time came. It was just a whole crew coming together, believing in each other and really believing what we could do as one. So it was an amazing thing to see and it was an awesome thing to be a part of.”

Steele, who majored in sport and recreation management at JMU, said he’s not sure what the future holds for him as football goes. He said that he is in the process of trying to find an agent and will participate in JMU’s Pro Day, which is a chance for National Football League teams to scout players, sometime this spring.

He said that whether he makes it to the NFL or not, he’s excited for the future.

“I’m a very firm believer in that God has a plan for my life,” Steele said. “If the league is part of that plan, then I’m going to continue to work hard and excel as much as I can. If not I will go and chase after the things that I love to do and find a job that I’m going to love going to every day of my life.”

Steele made a lasting impression with JMU’s football program. He finished with 354 tackles, which is 10th all-time and was a two-year team captain.

He said that his time at JMU will always be special to him.

“It’s been a blessing to be a part of James Madison and just be a part of the things that we accomplished this year and over the past couple years,” Steele said. “I’ve made great friends. I’ve met great people, professors, coaches, students, people around the community. It’s just been a blessing from the start to the finish. It will have a special place in my heart for a very long time. Always be a place where I’ll have memories of some of the best times of my life.”

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