When JMU football prepared during the summer before the 2019 campaign, it wanted to play 16 games. The regular season slate wasn’t enough; the Dukes wanted to reach Frisco for the third time in four years, and its pursuit began when the new coaching staff came in under head coach Curt Cignetti.
The former Elon head coach didn’t have to implement drastic changes. The early stage of his time in Harrisonburg was dedicated to laying a blueprint for the program one day at a time and forming an identity known as “Dukes football.”
That identity was being a relentless competitor. Cignetti wanted his team to learn how to take adversity and thrive through it — not crumble under it.
Setting the standard and forging an identity starts in spring camp and escalates in the summer. For a new coach trying to take a JMU team that went 9-4 (6-2 CAA) in 2018 further into the playoffs, it helped that the Dukes had multiple veteran players that knew what it took to add more trophies to the program’s repertoire.
“I thought we came a long way in August camp. About the last half of camp — or second week on — you could really see it starting to come together,” Cignetti said. “The practices were cleaner and crisper. We knew we had a chance to have a good football team. Now, new staff, new team, there’s always going to be unknowns.”
As summer camp neared its end and the first game against West Virginia inched closer, the relationships between players and coaches grew. The trust was there and the environment was taking the form that the new coaches wanted.
“Throughout the season, our relationships definitely strengthened,” former offensive lineman Mac Patrick said. “They made it a joy to really come to workouts, come to practice, go to the games and really work and give your all.”
Patrick said he was close with not only his own position coach but even the defensive coaches. While JMU didn’t pull off the FCS over FBS upset against the Mountaineers, the feeling afterward wasn’t normal for a smaller school. Many teams would’ve been satisfied taking WVU to the brink and losing 20-13, but the Dukes were disappointed. When they saw the Big 12 program on the schedule on Week 1, they wanted to begin 1-0.
In the first game of the Curt Cignetti era at JMU, the Dukes fell to Big 12 power West Virginia behind Austin Kendall's two touchdowns.
Cignetti said the team left Morgantown, West Virginia, knowing if they took care of business one day at a time they’d blossom into the title-contending team that JMU fans yearn to see.
“The sky was the limit,” Cignetti said.
The Dukes responded with two commanding wins but had to go on the road for three consecutive games against teams that proved the team’s capability against the premier competition of the FCS.
Each game presented roadblocks that Cignetti wanted to encounter. Against Chattanooga, the intense heat made hydration and basic fundamentals crucial. The Dukes prevailed 37-14, and the first test of the team’s FCS slate was passed.
Next was Elon, the team that upset JMU at Bridgeforth Stadium the year before and the program Cignetti departed from when he took the Dukes’ head coaching position. Despite conceding a long touchdown on the second play of the game, JMU responded with 38 unanswered points en route to a 45-10 victory.
To wrap the road trip, JMU traveled to New York to face Stony Brook. On the last leg of a gruesome road trip, the Dukes were well on their way to a comfortable win over a ranked Seawolves team. But late-game heroics from Stony Brook forced the game to go to overtime.
Like Cignetti wanted all along, his team was persevering through challenges. The roadblocks weren’t stopping points — they were learning experiences that ultimately helped them carry momentum throughout the season.
“That was another real moment of adversity for our team on the road,” Cignetti said. “We kept our poise, you know, played well in overtime, came out of there with a win, and I think that gave a lot of players some added confidence that no matter what happens, we could find a way. The following week against Villanova is a prime example.”
In the Dukes’ first game in Harrisonburg in three weeks, Villanova presented one of the bigger challenges for Cignetti and Co. to overcome. The Wildcats were up 24-17 in the fourth quarter, but three touchdowns in quick succession carried JMU to a 38-24 win against the then-No. 5 team in the country.
Cignetti knew the Dukes had to continue improving, but the goal then was to remain healthy and stay focused. After handling many moments of adversity, it was clear what the opportunity for the team was, and that was another National Championship run.
As it turned out, another trip to Frisco was in the cards. A date with North Dakota State was the last task the Dukes needed to complete. Unfortunately, the ending wasn’t what the purple and gold wanted, and instead of streamers painting the field at Toyota Stadium, it was the green and yellow confetti that swarmed the Bison as they lifted the FCS National Championship trophy yet again.