Heading into Saturday’s FCS playoff semifinal at Sam Houston, James Madison coach Curt Cignetti was so confident his team would be playing next Sunday in the national championship game that he didn’t give much thought to what he characterized as Plan B.
“What it’d be like not to be playing next week,” Cignetti said, describing the scenario he had pushed out of his mind. He certainly felt that scenario wasn’t coming at halftime against the Bearkats, when his Dukes led by 21 points.
But a stark reversal of momentum in the second half resulted in a Sam Houston triumph, 38-35, to put the program in the national championship game for the first time in nine years. The Bearkats will play South Dakota State for the title Sunday in Frisco, Texas.
JMU, meanwhile, will turn to Plan B, entering the offseason a week earlier than the Dukes had hoped, and than it seemed they would for about 42 minutes of game time Saturday.
It’s a dead end to a long road that began last summer, when the Dukes returned to campus for workouts, before the fall season was suspended in August. Then full attention shifted to an abnormal spring season, the format of which the NCAA announced in September.
JMU’s goal, like every year — especially during the program’s lofty run of success the past several seasons — was a national championship. But a chance of that evaporated with three third-quarter Sam Houston touchdowns in the span of 2:22.
“It looked like it was going to happen there at halftime,” Cignetti said. “I know everybody felt like, ‘OK, here we go.’ But it didn’t. And, at the end of the day, we’re going to live with this.”
The Dukes (7-1) were for most of the season the top-ranked team in the primary FCS poll, the Stats Perform Top 25. They overcame some stubbed toes early in the year, with slow starts against Robert Morris and Elon in their second and third games, to remain undefeated until Saturday.
They also went three weeks between games twice, the first time in March. JMU director of athletics Jeff Bourne said in mid-March the team had 12 players who tested positive and 16 who were contact-traced.
The second time was because of COVID-19 issues at Richmond and Elon, respectively, slashing JMU’s final two scheduled regular-season games.
The Colonial Athletic Association wound up scheduling a JMU vs. Richmond game for April 17 in Harrisonburg, on the final day of the regular season, which the Dukes won 23-6 in their biggest test to that point.
Paricularly on offense, they seemed to be hitting stride in the playoffs, led by senior quarterback Cole Johnson, who went from a second-half benching at Elon to someone Cignetti said Saturday gave the Dukes “really, really good” quarterback play their last handful of games.
The JMU defense allowed just one second-half touchdown in the regular season, and recorded six of its 12 interceptions this season in its three playoff games. That was despite multiple injuries going back to the Dukes’ fall practice period with defensive ends Isaac Ukwu and Jalen Green, and linebacker Taurus Jones, who were lost for the spring season, and most recently cornerback Wesley McCormick, who tweaked a groin injury against North Dakota in the playoff quarterfinals and didn’t play Saturday.
“This football team was so resilient. They’ve overcome so many obstacles,” Cignetti said. “I mean, the number of players on defense that we lost in fall camp. And during the season. And we got guys playing that came in as walk-ons that did a great job.”
But perhaps the biggest solace for JMU is that the spring season can be viewed as a mulligan of sorts. With an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to all fall athletes last year because of the pandemic, the Dukes’ seniors can come back for a traditional fall season later this year.
Cignetti said they’ll get a lot of players back then, though he’s not sure if Johnson, who suffered a throwing-hand thumb injury Saturday that may require surgery, will be one of them.
It’ll be a strange, quick turnaround with two seasons in the same calendar year — senior defensive end Mike Green spoke of just a few weeks off before getting back into the weight room.
But JMU will have fuel. Senior running back Percy Agyei-Obese said the result at Sam Houston will be that for much of the team.
It’ll be a not-so-distant memory in the fall, and one the Dukes will hope can help spark another run, and this one all the way to Frisco.
“A lot of people know what we can do now as a team. And the chemistry we built,” Agyei-Obese said. “So, we’re ready for the fall.”