HARRISONBURG — Throughout the season when James Madison University’s football team has needed it, they have been able to come up with a big play to pull out a win.
In last weekend’s 31-28 Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal win over Weber State, the Dukes rallied with 11 points in the final three minutes. JMU head football coach Mike Houston said there is something special about his team, which has won 25 straight games.
“I say it a lot and a lot of people don’t understand it. And they don’t get it when I say it, especially the ones that aren’t around here. It’s just we’ve got something very, very special here,” Houston said. “Our kids in the locker room are the way they are. The way they work. The way they believe in each other. My coaching staff, our administration, it’s just this is a good, good place and we have a special thing going on right now.”
The reigning FCS champion Dukes saw their streak in serious jeopardy against Weber State.
JMU scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion to end a 56-second drive with 2:08 left. JMU’s defense forced a three-and-out against Weber State, and then the offense drove back down the field in the final minute. Redshirt freshman Ethan Ratke’s last-second 46-yard field goal kept JMU’s season alive.
“What an incredible effort by our kids,” Houston said. “They never panicked. They never got down and that’s as down as we’ve been.”
The players said their experience in big games certainly helped them out. JMU quarterback Bryan Schor said one big key is the team has the ability to stay calm no matter what the situation is.
“I think it’s just who we are,” Schor said. “We’ve played in some big games. We got experience, but it’s just who we are. We’re not a team that’s going to freak out. We got a lot of confidence in each other.”
Earlier this season, JMU scored the game-winning touchdown against the University of Richmond in the final minute for a 20-13 win.
Despite the deficit they were facing against Weber State, the players said they never doubted they were going to win. JMU redshirt senior offensive lineman Aaron Stinnie said that it all starts with how close the players are in the locker room.
“Everybody had faith in one another,” Stinnie said. “We all stick together on the sidelines. And you know that’s pretty hard to do when we’re going through that type of game right there. So everybody staying together, and I think that’s just a really a statement to the type of family and brotherhood that we have in our locker room.”
Houston has said throughout the season that the bond the team has now wasn’t there when he first took the job almost two years ago. He said there was some dissension between the offense and the defense, but all of that is gone now.
JMU’s offense and defense are both keys to the success of the team, and their ability to work together has also been a big factor in the 25-game winning streak.
After JMU’s offense scored to tie the game against Weber State, it was the defense’s turn to step up and make a stop to give it back to the offense one last time. JMU’s defense had struggled some in the second half, but delivered when the team needed it.
JMU (13-0) hosts South Dakota State University (11-2) in the FCS semifinals at 4:30 p.m., Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
JMU senior linebacker Brandon Hereford said that the Dukes’ win over Weber State could be beneficial as the Dukes move forward in the playoffs.
“You need those tough games,” Hereford said. “And to pull them out lets you really know what your team’s about. Really just being tested in a game like that makes you better down the road.”
Houston said the way the team cares about each other makes them play even harder for each other.
“They’re a tight-knit bunch. They care about each other — they really do,” Houston said. “When somebody, like the situation with (JMU’s) A.J. (Bolden, who is out for the season due to injury) or somebody’s going through stuff, you see how much they care about each other. And when you have a group that’s talented and works as hard as they do and they care about each other, then they feel a lot of accountability towards each other. So they’re going to put a little extra they have into it. So I think we just have a really good formula in our locker room right now.”