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JMU won the program's first national championship in 2004.

In 2001, JMU football was a laughing stock. Head coach Mickey Matthews was in his second year of his coaching stint at JMU, and the Dukes were young and inexperienced. The team went 2-9 that season and the young JMU team had nothing to do but grow.Underdogs: the Dukes win the 2004 I-AA Championship 

That’s exactly what it did. In 2002, the Dukes improved to 5-7, with a 3-6 conference record; in 2003 they improved to 6-6, breaking the .500 win percentage for the first time since 2000 where the Dukes went 6-5.

However, heading into the 2004 season, nobody would have picked the Dukes to win it all. They were the underdogs.

“Going into the season, I think we all felt we had a shot at being pretty good,”former JMU 2004 team member Bruce Johnson said. “There seemed to be a different feel during summer workouts too. So all of that kind of carried itself into the season. As the season progressed, that feeling became a little bit more tangible. It was pretty cool to see and feel the support of the fans and community too.” 

At the beginning of the 2004 season, the national championship was the last thought on JMU’s mind. It wasn’t because of its past records, though. It was because of Matthews’ son, Clayton, and the accident that left him paralyzed for life.

It was bigger than football. Clayton played on the team and was a part of the culture Matthews brought to the Dukes. However, the accident that happened on campus changed Clayton and the life of Matthews forever, and the Dukes rallied around the Matthews family.

“For Mickey, the family story, you can’t set that aside,” JMU Director of Broadcast Services Curt Dudley said. “It was not an easy rehabilitation, so there was that underlying story behind it all, and the fans certainly knew it. It's like some adversity you get to know. You come together in a certain way and it's interesting how those types of human moments come to motivate an athlete.”  

So, with heavy hearts for Clayton, JMU football went out to play in his honor. The Dukes didn’t expect to accomplish what they did, but then again, who doesn’t root for the underdog?

The Dukes started the 2004 season with two wins, one dominating, one not so dominating. It was both the offense and defensive working together this season, though, that led the Dukes to their stunning record. JMU won its home opener against Lock Haven 62-7 and then won its first road game at Villanova 17-0.

“We had seniors that had been through two losing seasons and we knew we could be much better than we had been,” JMU former 2004 team member Marvin Brown said. “We had a head coach who was on the ‘hot seat’ as the last game in 2003 [there was] a huge ‘Fire Mickey’ chant by the crowd, so I think all of that created a perfect storm of a team ready to take on everybody.”

The Dukes didn’t lose much in 2004. They were playing for a cause and it was one of those years where everything just clicked. In Week 3 they had one of their only losses to West Virginia, 45-10.

However, the Dukes got a boost after the humiliating loss in Morgantown. The next six games were all JMU as the Dukes rattled off six consecutive wins to bring their record to 8-1 on the year.

“Coming off the loss to West Virginia, I think we all felt that there wasn't a team in 1-AA that should beat us,” Johnson said. “As a team we all had the mindset of taking care of business that week, trying not to look ahead. I think that approach helped to keep us focused, because our conference was tough, and any given Saturday a game could go one way or the other if you weren't on your game.”

Within those six games were some moments that JMU fans will remember. The Dukes beat in-state rival Richmond 26-20 on the road, the second time in a row that JMU beat the Spiders. They also dominated at home against the University of Massachusetts, 28-7 and Virginia Military 48-10.

Another game that will go down in history during the JMU championship run is the team’s game against Delaware. The Dukes and the Blue Hens played a very defensive and back and forth game. The score was tied in Harrisonburg and it looked like it was heading toward overtime. Then, senior cornerback Cortez Thompson ran the punt back 87 yards to secure a win for JMU — and there were no flags on the play.

“It was one of the best calls in JMU football,” Dudley said. “A lot of fans that were at that game remember that call, the ‘no flags’ call.”

JMU rode the win streak until they hit in-state rivals William &  Mary. The Dukes were No. 4 at the time and the Tribe were No. 10. In a stunning game for James Madison, the Dukes lost 27-24 as William & Mary kicked a last second field goal to win.

“Looking back, maybe the last second loss to William & Mary was a good thing,” JMU alumni and Bridgewater resident Michael Ruckman said. “So even though we lost, it might have been a good loss, if you can say such a thing. I think it made a run in the playoffs more of [an] ‘us against the world’ with our seeding.”

When the Dukes won their last game of the regular season against Towson, it set them up to be the No. 8 seed in the tournament. The I-AA hadn’t instituted it for weeks yet, so JMU played the next week against Lehigh and the week after at Furman. Both games were nail biters; both games had a final of 14-13. 

Then, in the semi-finals, JMU had a rematch with the now No. 6 seeded Tribe. It was the game everyone was anticipating and unlike the previous game, this one was in Williamsburg. However, Matthews wasn’t new to the coaching game, and redshirt sophomore quarterback Justin Rascatti was seeing the Tribe for the second time and wasn’t rattled. The Dukes took back what was theirs and advanced to the championship game, winning 48-34.

“Greatest game ever. First night game in William & Mary history, that entire night felt like a movie,” Brown said. “We had a lot of players from ‘757’ so having a game to go to the national title in front of family and friends and [while] playing your hated rival, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

The Dukes faced No.7 Montana in the final. This wasn’t the Griz’s first time in the game, but it was JMU’s. However, Matthews had no doubt in his mind; if JMU can make adjustments, it will win this game. Then, with help from the Marching Royal Dukes and JMU faithful in Chattanooga, Tennessee, JMU came out on top 31-21 to win its first ever National Championship game. 

“It was amazing. To win a National Title after playing every playoff game on the road was a time I’d never forget,” Brown said. “Those that came before us paved the way, but what JMU football is now, we felt that 2004 was the beginning of the era [of] JMU being a nationally recognized powerhouse.”

They were the underdogs. The Dukes came off a 6-6 season and the freshmen that dared the 2-9 year got to hold the trophy up first. JMU won its first I-AA championship in program history, a league that would later change to the FCS, and JMU fans wouldn’t feel the glory again until 2016.

JMU played for Clayton. The Dukes played for their spirit and culture, and they played to represent James Madison University.

Contact Savannah Reger at @breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.