HARRISONBURG — There are many advantages for James Madison University’s football team having a bye week this week to start the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Perhaps the biggest one is being able to spend Thanksgiving with their families.
JMU coach Mike Houston is among those thankful for the bye.
“The bye allows the players to be able to go home and have Thanksgiving with their families,” Houston said in a press conference Sunday. “It allows the coaches to have Thanksgiving with their families. We actually get to buy a Christmas tree this year before Christmas.”
The Dukes are the top seed in the FCS playoffs and will play the winner of Lehigh at Stony Brook at 2 p.m. on Dec. 2. JMU did not play Stony Brook, a fellow Colonial Athletic Association team, during the regular season. Lehigh (6-5) plays at Stony Brook (9-2) on Saturday.
Houston said the Dukes will practice Monday, today and Wednesday this week. He said the bye also allows his players to get healthy.
“We’ll be able to get rested up and get some guys really healthy,” Houston said. “And we’ll get some advanced prep for both teams. We’ll see who wins and who we face.”
SPECIAL CHAMPIONSHIP: Houston said that he’s been lucky enough to be part of several championship teams in his coaching career. Houston said that winning the CAA title outright, with a convincing 31-3 win over Elon, was one of his most memorable championships.
“I told the kids (Sunday) before the selection show that on that stage and in that environment, on the road against that caliber of team, to get out and execute and play the way that we did was easily our most complete and dominant performance of the year,” Houston said. “And I’m just really proud of the way they played and the way they represented themselves.”
Houston and JMU seniors Bryan Schor and Andrew Ankrah all said that they have been getting every team’s best game all season long. They said that made winning the conference title mean that much more.
Houston said being ranked No. 1 all season, and being the reigning national champions put a target on the team’s back.
“This year every game we went into we went as the No. 1 ranked team in the country,” Houston said. “And any time you’re sitting there with that label the competition is going to be gunning to knock you off. It gives them a little bit more juice.”
WINNING ATTITUDE: One thing that has helped JMU all season has been the team’s ability to win close games and being able to handle the pressure of being the top-ranked team.
Schor said that is one of the things the team learned last year during their run for the championship and something they can use again this year.
“Now that we’ve been there before, and we know what the crucial times of the games feel like,” Schor said. “We know that we’re not going to be scared of those moments. I think that’s what we bring (to the playoffs). Just that experience is probably the biggest thing from last year that’s going to help us in the playoffs.”
The Dukes have won 23 straight games, and became the first school in CAA history to go 8-0 in back-to-back seasons.
Houston said JMU’s success all comes back to the team working together and helping each other.
“I told them (Sunday) we are all blessed, because what we have in that locker room and in this program, most programs across the country wish it was that way and it’s not,” Houston said. “…We are all fortunate to be here. I have a great job. But we don’t have guys that you don’t enjoy coaching. You enjoy being around the players every single day. My coaches all get along. They don’t fight. They don’t gripe. There’s no hidden agendas or anything like that. It’s a unique environment where everybody is working as hard as they can to help the other.”