With two games left in the regular season and only one to be played at Bridgeforth Stadium, seniors of JMU football are preparing to play their final moments on Zane Showker Field. For many of them, their four years seem like a blur, but the fact that their collegiate careers are coming to a close won’t seem real until it’s said and done.
Senior linebacker Landan Word said it’s hard to believe how quickly the past four years have gone. After transferring from the University of Virginia in 2017, Word had the opportunity to join the class that experienced a National Championship in its first year on campus. He said the team took him in immediately, and it felt like home from the start.
Over the past four years, JMU football accumulated a record of 46-7 (28-2 CAA). Many of the seniors on the team were a part of the 2016 FCS National Championship-winning team and were runners-up the following year. While those players might’ve been freshmen — true or redshirt — the impacts they’ve made since arriving on campus have been a large reason why the Dukes are a perennial power in Division I-AA football.
On Saturday, those freshmen who walked in as wide-eyed players hopeful of making an impact will be recognized as seniors. However, for them, the job isn’t done.
In the fall of 2016, JMU had been in the process of breaking into the upper echelon of FCS football that was ruled by teams like North Dakota State and Eastern Washington. Former head coach Everett Withers accepted the same job at Texas State, and the Dukes brought in Mike Houston, who was an up-and-coming coach yearning to break NDSU’s dominant streak.
Two years later, the Dukes went through another change. Houston accepted the head coaching job at East Carolina, paving the way for head coach Curt Cignetti to take the helm.
“That was interesting for us, to have Houston leave after that loss and having to get used to coach Cignetti coming from Elon,” Word said. “Everyone knows we lost to Elon last year, so that created a little bit of tension. I think those first couple of months of spring were really essential to us to create trust not only through the staff but with what we wanted to get accomplished.”
At 9-1 (6-0 CAA) and a win away from clinching the CAA title, the Dukes are close to achieving one of the goals they set before the season. The team wants sole possession of the conference prize, but it also has its sights set on more: the program’s third FCS National Championship.
JMU currently sits at No. 2 in the FCS Committee’s top-10 rankings. That means if the Dukes end the regular seasons with wins over Richmond and Rhode Island, they’ll be set to host throughout the playoffs until the championship unless eliminated beforehand.
“Hopefully, we’ve got a lot of games left to play,” Cignetti said. “I’m not ready to write the final chapter yet. But, right now, we’re on schedule, and we’ve had good leadership throughout the season.”
First, it’s the Spiders, JMU’s long-time rival and a surprise in the 2019 season. Richmond was picked to finish 10th out of 12 teams but finds itself with a chance to spoil the Dukes’ push for a third outright CAA title in five seasons.
Because of what the game has on the line, it’s easy to assume both teams will play with high emotions and intensity. Senior offensive lineman Mac Patrick said the key is to focus on preparation and the game plan and on not letting the spectacle of the game hinder their execution.
“[Offensive line/assistant head coach Damian Wroblewski] preaches every single day not putting your emotions in practice right now, more focusing in on what you have to do,” Patrick said. “Then, use that emotion on Saturdays on top of your execution. As long as the emotion is driving you and not distracting, that’s something that we use that for.”
Following Richmond, JMU takes on Rhode Island. The Rams are currently 2-8 (0-6 CAA), and their last win came Nov. 2 against Merrimack, a team in its first year of Division I-AA play after making the jump from Division II. On paper, the Dukes should roll and round out the season convincingly, but as Cignetti has preached all season, every team presents different challenges, and Rhody will be the same case.
But, before it can talk about Rhode Island, JMU has to conquer Richmond. If it does, it’ll bring the CAA Football trophy back to Harrisonburg and cap the senior class’ career that has helped place the Dukes as a nationally known name. A National Title, a convincing win over FBS ECU and College GameDay later, the seniors are getting ready to spend their final moments at Bridgeforth.
“You really don’t think about what your last home game’s gonna be like until the week comes,” Word said. “You can think about what it’s gonna be like for the first couple of weeks, but at that time, your focus is on your next opponent. We’re here, and I honestly don’t even know what to think.”
To Patrick, his four years went by quickly. He says when he was a freshman, he didn’t believe people who told him college is over in the blink of an eye. But, for now, it’s a bittersweet feeling, but he hopes Saturday isn’t the last time he’ll dawn the JMU uniform in front of a packed home crowd.
“We cherish the time we have with each other even more now because we know it’s going to come to an end soon,” Patrick said.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.