It’s a playoff-style matchup in Week 3 — and JMU fans are loving it.
Two thousand eighty-five miles away from Bridgeforth Stadium is Stewart Stadium — the home of Weber State football. JMU announced the addition of the Wildcats to the 2021 regular season schedule mid-September 2019, and it's the farthest West the Dukes have ever traveled. With the game only days away, fans are starting to make final preparations for their trip ahead.
“We’re really excited to see Weber State on their home turf, especially knowing the history of these two [universities], ” Andrea Shellman Clay, the mother of JMU alumnae Mollie (’18) and Caroline (’20) Clay, said. “It feels like an early preview of the playoffs.”
JMU typically plays a major nonconference opponent every year — often an FBS team such as West Virginia in 2019. This season, the Dukes battle a top-tier FCS program instead. In some cases, the matchup not only catches fans’ eyes, but it also improves JMU’s strength of schedule for the eventual playoff bracket announcement in November.
“[JMU] is showing the strength that they have this season so far,” JMU alumna Kim Miller McCallister (’82, ’85) said. “This game is the one game out of the whole season I saw as the most pivotal to our stance in the playoffs.”
The Dukes have welcomed the Wildcats onto their home turf both times the teams have met — first in 2017 and again in 2019. Both matchups were the FCS semifinal games and led to JMU booking a flight to Frisco, Texas. The 2017 game featured redshirt senior kicker Ethan Ratke’s famous game-winning field goal with one second left in a tied game.
The 2019 matchup didn’t see the same climactic win as 2017, but JMU held Weber State to 14 points to clinch a national title berth. The Dukes have ended Weber State’s season in both games played, but the implications of this game aren’t the same. JMU holds the all-time advantage against Weber State, but fans know the Wildcats bring a new challenge JMU hasn’t seen this season.
“This is a top ten game, and Weber State played well against a Pac-12 team for a while,” JMU alumnus Bernie Pritchard (’96) said, referring to Weber State’s matchup against Utah earlier this season. “They should come with a higher level offense and defense and be on their home field, which is always an advantage, too.”
The FCS voters don’t decide what every team’s regular season games are, meaning this matchup was decided by both programs. What makes this an intriguing opponent for JMU? The westward expansion, for one. The farthest any JMU team has traveled for an athletic event came during JMU softball’s 2021 trip to the Women’s College World Series run in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
“Going that far west, particularly after meeting only a few years ago, really makes this an intriguing game,” Pritchard said. “Travelling for the team isn’t something new for us, though.”
Bringing JMU beyond the Mississippi River naturally expands its athletic market by word of mouth and, in JMU’s case, it also expands television marketing. The game is set to air on ESPN+, a platform not commonly used to broadcast the Dukes.
For fans attending the game, the sea of purple this time will be different from the one in Godwin’s F Lot. But even in away games, JMU Nation travels in a group. The JMU Duke Club provides its own ticketing for the game so fans can stay together during tailgating, the game and for postgame activities. In some cases, tickets are first come, first serve — but many fans can purchase them earlier depending on what member tier they’re in.
Regardless of how fans get their tickets, the emphasis on supporting the Dukes stays the same — something emphasized by McCallister, Pritchard and Clay. The added intensity of being away has brought together a close-knit bond between members of JMU Nation, additionally described by McCallister.
“When JMU comes together out of state, it’s like the coolest bonding and team-spirited event I’ve seen,” McCallister said. “I want to see JMU do the same here in Utah like they do other games.”
Fans in the Weber State stands are also intrigued to see what storylines come true and have already begun predicting scores online. Eyes are on Ratke, as he’s only one kick away from breaking the FCS all-time record for made field goals.
The Hanover county native already called the moment “full circle” in the postgame press conference after the Maine game, and fans say they can see that same viewpoint and have even shown their praise toward Ratke. For some, seeing both the 2017 kick and now a potentially record-breaking kick is an extra level of excitement.
“It would be wonderful for him to get a winning field goal at Weber State,” Pritchard said. “Certainly, it could be an absolute full-circle moment for him and a great moment for someone who has played like a professional at JMU.”
With redshirt senior quarterback Cole Johnson’s recent performances, JMU Nation may have high expectations for his showing against Weber State. Johnson has thrown no interceptions so far this season, and his chemistry with the wide receivers has sparked excitement from the crowds.
“Cole Johnson has really matured in a lot of ways,” Clay said. “He’s off to a great start, and I’d like to see that continue since he’s one of my favorites.”
Whatever the reason, JMU Nation is ready for Ogden, Utah. The game’s storylines, the rivalry and the chance to travel paves the way for a different matchup style that JMU football hasn’t seen before.
“It’ll be another opportunity on national television for JMU to shine,” Clay said. “We’re excited for people to see what an amazing school it is, and I think a whole part of the country is about to find out what makes JMU so special.”
CORRECTION (September 16, 11:39 p.m.): The previous version of this article stated JMU first played Weber State in the 2017 FCS Semifinals. However, the Dukes played the Wildcats in the 2017 FCS quarterfinals.
Contact Madison Hricik at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.