The Road To Frisco A look back at jmu football's Historic Season

Death Valley isn’t in Clemson, South Carolina. It isn’t in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, either. Let the FBS powerhouses call their stadiums whatever they please, but it should be known that the real Death Valley is in Fargo, North Dakota. It doesn’t deserve this name because of the almost inhabitable climate that consists of negative-20 degree temperatures and almost five feet of snowfall per year. No, the Fargodome is the real Death Valley because it’s where FCS national title dreams go to die.

Over the last five years 18 playoff teams — all battle tested and well-tried — have entered the Fargodome. Eighteen in a row have been sent home with hopes for better luck next year. It’s just the way it is. You don’t win playoff games in the Fargodome. You just don’t beat North Dakota State in the postseason.

Maybe it’s the noise. Maybe teams can’t handle the sound of 18,000 screaming fans when they’re packed into the dome. Maybe it’s because before the game they turn all the lights off and blast AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” in a pregame ritual that’s so exciting you can’t help but stop and stare. Or maybe it’s because North Dakota State knows they’re the best, and everyone else knows they’re the best too, so before the game even starts- you’ve already lost. Chalk it up to whatever you want, five national titles in a row mean something.

That kind of dominance isn’t just a streak, it’s a dynasty. It’s a reign of FCS terror. JMU was the 19th team to enter the Fargodome in a playoff contest and it was safe to say that many thought their fate would be no different than anyone else’s. But this story doesn’t start in Fargo, North Dakota. The Dukes historic season began almost a year before their fight in Death Valley.

This story starts back in October of the 2015 season when the Dukes squared off against in-state rival the College of William & Mary. After JMU’s longtime quarterback Vad Lee was injured in the previous contest against the University of Richmond, sophomore Bryan Schor would make his debut as the starting quarterback. Although he would lose the contest in a heartbreaker, Schor would go on to start the remaining three games of the 2015 season and then win the starting role as a junior in 2016.

After Schor and the Dukes finished the 2015 season 9-3 and with a first round playoff elimination, in early December news broke that head coach Everett Withers would pursue other coaching opportunities. He’d eventually go on to accept a position at Texas State University but just 12 days later, Athletics Director Jeff Bourne announced that the Dukes had hired Mike Houston as the program’s new head coach. Houston had accumulated over a decade of coaching experience and led his previous team, The Citadel, to a conference title.

Houston and the Dukes wouldn’t waste any time getting to work. During the season opener in front of more than 23,000 fans, JMU would beat Morehead State 80 to 7 in what would turn out to be a preview for the rest of the season. Ten out of the 11 touchdowns scored would come from the Dukes cast of elite running backs that included sophomore Trai Sharp; redshirt junior Cardon Johnson; junior Taylor Woods and senior Khalid Abdullah. Schor would silence any doubts about replacing Vad Lee as he passed for 109 yards and rushed for an additional 129 and three scores.

Although the third week represents the team’s only loss of the season, it would come at the hand of Football Bowl Subdivision opponent University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. JMU managed to put up 28 points and held a 21-14 lead against a team that would go on to rank 17th nationally at its highest point. Mitch Trubisky, UNC’s quarterback, would also finish the season as one of the NFL’s top prospects at the quarterback position. Although the final score would end up being 56-28, it proved that JMU was battle tested and ready to stand and swing with the rest of the FCS teams on its schedule.

Just shy of a year later, Schor would get another shot at the team that bested him during his first game as a starting quarterback. He wouldn’t come up short this time. Senior cornerback Taylor Reynolds would seal the Dukes’ 31-24 victory with an interception in the fourth quarter while Abdullah would continue to pave the way for the offense as he rushed for over 100 yards in his fifth straight game. Redemption for Schor, and another win for JMU improving its record to 5-1 overall.

Early November brought up another grudge match up with an in-state rival. The year before, with ESPN’s College GameDay in attendance, Richmond ousted the Dukes in a homecoming barn burner. It was another offensive shootout, but this time JMU came up big late when junior tight end Jonathan Kloosterman reeled in a touchdown catch to put JMU ahead 40-37 with 1:36 left in the game. Kloosterman would keep the momentum going into the postseason as he’s scored in all three playoff games. [Photo: Sam Taylor | The Breeze]

They say, “defense wins championships,” and with a little help from freshman quarterback Cole Johnson, on this day it did. After Schor left the game early in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, Johnson was called upon to take over on the offensive side of the ball. Although Johnson performed adequately, the defense stole the show as they held one of the CAA’s top offensive units to just one touchdown. Junior linebacker Brandon Hereford; redshirt senior linebacker Gage Steele; redshirt junior defensive lineman Brandon Brown and junior defensive lineman Urquhart lead the defense in tackles but it was redshirt senior Taylor Reynolds who came up big again with a late interception in the fourth quarter to solidify JMU’s fifth CAA championship.

After a first-round bye, the Dukes would make quick work of No. 22 University of New Hampshire. A week later on a cold Friday night, they would roll over No. 5 Sam Houston State in a 65-7 victory that was broadcast on ESPN2. It was the events that occurred after these two games that would leave the Dukes shorthanded as they geared up to face North Dakota State. Although a statement acknowledging the suspensions was released after the win in Fargo, the Dukes played NDSU without some key contributors including junior wide receiver Terrence Alls and junior linebacker Brandon Hereford. Five additional players were also suspended. Their names and the offenses they committed weren’t made public by the team.

The last obstacle to JMU’s first national championship berth in 10 years was a big one. North Dakota State was perfect when it came to playoff games for the last 22 match ups and most didn’t expect this to change. Although JMU came out firing with a 17-0 lead, just a week earlier NDSU had proven to be effective practitioners when it came to executing the come from behind win. Just as they did against South Dakota State University in the quarterfinal match up, the Bison mounted a run based counter attack that began to chip away at the Dukes lead. 17 unanswered points in the second and third quarters would leave the two gridlocked. It wasn’t until early in the fourth that JMU would begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. After a strange set of fourth down penalties, sophomore kicker Tyler Gray would walk out and line up for a very long 45 yard field goal. Gray would deliver and send it through the uprights for the go-ahead points. The final blow would come from junior wide receiver John Miller. Miller, who was tasked to fill the void left by the suspended Terrence Alls, would connect with Schor for a 25 yard touchdown to seal the deal.

JMU had just knocked off the number one contender, a team that Kirk Herbstreit had described as the “Alabama” of FCS football, and the five time reigning national champions. The Dukes historic season will culminate on Jan. 7 when they square off against Youngstown State for a national title in Frisco, Texas.

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