FRISCO, TX. — There is little doubt that James Madison University has been one of the special programs through the history of the Football Championship Subdivision.
So it was only appropriate that the Dukes’ special teams provided the momentum early to get JMU rolling towards a 28-14 NCAA Division I FCS national title victory Saturday afternoon against Youngstown State before 14,423 fans at a cold and snowy Toyota Stadium.
A blocked punt by Justin Wellons nd when the Dukes smothered a Penguin field goal attempt after a bad snap minutes later, James Madison was on its way to more of a coronation than a win in the 2016-17 title game.
Once fourth-seeded JMU (14-1) jumped to its 14-0 lead, only five-and-a-half minutes into the contest, it seemed all but inevitable that the Dukes were going to celebrate their first national championship since 2004.
But in a sense, this is a title that was five years in the making.
Longtime coach Mickey Matthews, who led the Dukes to that 31-21 victory in 2004 over Montana on a Finley Stadium field in Chattanooga that resembled a war zone, spoke with enthusiasm at the Colonial Athletic Association media day in 2012 about how special he thought his freshman recruiting class was.
Matthews wasn’t afforded the opportunity to see this group of talented performers develop through their senior years of competition, but he was more than prophetic about what his players could accomplish.
In the middle of the 2015 season, this writer had the chance to watch in person as then-top-ranked JMU dismantle Elon 51-0 behind the incomparable skill of multifaceted quarterback Vad Lee. Now Elon may not have been North Dakota State, but the Dukes looked like a team with the talent to win a national championship.
That assessment just proved to be a season early. Lee was lost for the year with a broken foot and the rest of the James Madison soon began to resemble a MASH unit.
Before everyone knew what had hit them, the Dukes stumbled down the stretch to blow the CAA title and a seeding advantage in the FCS playoffs. They dropped a first-round playoff game for the second straight year and lost Withers to Texas State.
JMU didn’t handle adversity particularly well. There was finger-pointing and ill feelings between the offensive and defensive units and a feeling of betrayal as the squad faced the prospect of new coaching leadership for the third time in four seasons.
Into this brink stepped Houston, who had turned around down-trodden programs at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne and The Citadel in short order. With James Madison, Houston didn’t have to be a miracle worker, he just needed to reestablish his team’s confidence.
Houston also showed some flexibility by not drastically altering JMU’s offensive scheme. Having found coaching success with an old-fashioned, triple-option approach at Lenoir-Rhyne and The Citadel, he melded his philosophy around the skills of his players — something many coaches are unwilling to do.
The result was the second-highest scoring attack in FCS, a school record for wins and a Duke squad that crushed opposition in their first two games of the playoffs at voracious Bridgeforth Stadium.
That set up the semifinal adventure into the most daunting road venue in FCS — North Dakota States noisy and intimidating Fargodome, a place where the five-time national champions had never lost in the playoffs.
JMU responded with a performance that was similar to Saturday’s win. The Dukes quickly built a 17-0 lead behind run-stuffing defense, the dazzling runs of Khalid Abdullah and the strong arm of quarterback Bryan Schor and had only themselves to blame for not blowing the Bison out in the first half.
Even after NDSU rallied to tie the game, Houston and JMU didn’t lose their composure and calmly closed out a stunning 27-17 win. At that point, it seemed unlikely that unlikely, unseeded finalist Youngstown State would be able to slow down the Dukes either.
In the final, Abdullah earned MVP honors by rushing 26 times for 101 yards and two touchdowns and Schor was an economical 7-of-12 passing for 112 yards and two immaculately-placed TD tosses to tight end Jonathan Klosterman (14 yards and his fifth TD catch of the playoffs) and Rashad Davis (30 yards after another poor YSU punt).
Abdullah finished as JMU’s single-season leading rusher (1,809 yards) and the NCAA’s top FCS ground-gainer. He also had an NCAA-best 22 touchdowns this year and finished with a JMU-record 44 for his career.
The JMU defense, led by seven tackles, including three for losses, by senior linebacker Gage Steele, limited the Penguins to only 21 yards rushing on 31 attempts and constantly pressured YSU quarterback Hunter Wells (28-of-48, 271 yards passing, two TDs, one interception).
Wells threw one touchdown pass of 17 yards to tight end Shane Kuhn before the half, but YSU didn’t score again until 10 seconds remained in the game to Jeremiah Wells.
Abdullah, who had tallied JMU’s third touchdown of the first half on a one-yard blast to cap an eight-play, 87-yard drive, scored again from two yards out following a deflected interception by cornerback Curtis Oliver early in the third quarter to all but clinch the outcome.
Youngstown State (12-4) hadn’t been to an FCS title game since new school president Jim Tressel led the Penguins to six finals and four championships between 1991-99. YSU hadn’t even made the playoffs since reaching the semifinals in 2006.
In this contest, however, it was as if JMU was beating the Penguins at their old game as JMU won for the 12th straight time since an early-season loss to Power-5 North Carolina.