FRISCO, Texas — JMU football has made the long journey between Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Frisco, Texas, plenty of times before.
Three trips in the last four years to be exact, something few programs can rival. Even through all the success, the players still talk about one thing: They have a “chip on their shoulder.”
Sure, the players who were on the team during the 2016 season must be happy they have their own championship ring on their fingers, but the two seasons that followed were less than ideal. The JMU football program has grown accustomed to winning over the past few years: the coaches expect it, the fans want it and the players work for it.
Two years ago, the season once again ended 32 miles north of Dallas, but unlike the year prior, JMU didn’t hoist the coveted trophy. The following year, the Dukes season ended prematurely, falling short of another trip to Frisco.
“We definitely lost early last year to Colgate, which is disappointing,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter, who’s been with the team since 2017, said. “All this season, we made our mind up right after that game that we weren’t going to do that this year.”
Saturday’s opponent has quickly become one JMU knows well, with previous meetings during the 2016 and 2017 playoffs ahead of this year’s matchup. A meeting between JMU and NDSU has been talked about throughout the entire season, and a rivalry slowly starting to blossom between the two programs.
For all of the 2019 season, JMU’s mantra has been to take the schedule one week at a time, thanks to first-year head coach Curt Cignetti’s focused approach to the game. Now that it’s NDSU in front of them, the Dukes are starting to talk about what it means to get another shot at the Bison.
“It’s definitely an extra chip on our shoulders, [playing NDSU],” redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson, who’s been with the Dukes during their last three title games, said. “But, at the end of the day, this is a new year. We know we have to take care of business this year — the past is the past.”
For redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway, who’s been at JMU his entire career, he has his eyes on playing an entire championship game Saturday. The Newport News, Virginia, native has been a key figure for the JMU defense since his freshman year, Holloway is ready to leave his impact in the biggest game of the season.
When JMU topped Youngstown State on Jan. 7, 2017, Holloway, who was a sophomore at the time, was sidelined for an injury after posting just two tackles early in the first half. A season later, his teammates made it all the way back to Frisco, but Holloway was forced to redshirt due to another injury that knocked him out for the season after playing in only one game. Holloway, now faced with playing in his final college game, has overcome even more injuries to make it to Saturday — he played with a cast on his wrist for parts of the 2019 season.
“I'm ready to go,” Holloway said. “It’s just one of those situations; I’m just ready to play, just ready to go.”
The Dukes say they understand the gravity of making it to the FCS National Championship. Robinson pointed out that there are players and teams that don’t even make it to the playoffs, let alone the national championship.
JMU also understands it has one of the toughest opponents to take down Saturday, but the Dukes say they believe their preparation over the past several months has put them in a good place ahead of the game. With the senior leadership among the JMU roster, players who have helped improve the team’s mentality, and an NDSU program that’s created a dynasty, Saturday’s game may just be one that’s talked about for the next several years.
“It's always a big debate: NDSU [or] JMU,” Carter said. “This is a time where you can basically settle the debate … May the best team win.”
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.