On January 18, 2016, James Madison University named Mike Houston the new head coach of the football program. From that point on, JMU football changed. Houston came to Harrisonburg, Virginia from The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina. After winning their first two games by a combined 108 points, the Dukes were handed their first (and only) loss by the Division I Tar Heels of North Carolina on September 17. From then on, it was a new kind of JMU football the fans were seeing.
During games, it was less of “Who can outscore who?” and more of “Who are the Dukes’ next victims?” Houston transformed the defense and established a new hard-nosed, disciplined system lead by eventual 2nd Team All-CAA linebacker and senior captain Gage Steele. The Dukes maintained their reputation of having a high-powered offense by averaging 46.7 points per game throughout the season. Senior running back and 2nd team All-American Kahlid Abdullah was the go-to-guy throughout the year, averaging 120 yards per game, and totaling 22 touchdowns.
Quarterbacking the offense was junior Bryan Schor. Schor led the nation in completion percentage at 73% and yards per attempt at 10.14. Consequently, his efforts earned him the Bill Dudley award (top Division 1 player in Virginia), CAA Offensive Player of the Year, and First Team All-CAA quarterback. After falling to UNC, the Dukes went on to go undefeated in the CAA (8-0), with close wins against William & Mary and the University of Richmond. They extended their winning streak after having a bye over New Hampshire in the first round of the Division 1-AA, which includes 24 teams.
Now in the quarterfinals, JMU faced the previously number one-ranked team in the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) on December 9, Sam Houston State. Facing 10 degree weather in Harrisonburg, JMU came up victorious, winning the game 65-7. The Dukes’ toughest feat was in the semifinals in the Fargodome against the five-time reigning FCS champion, the North Dakota State Bison. The Dukes did what no one thought they would, and what no one has done in five years. JMU defeated the Bison 27-17 in the playoffs for the right to play in the FCS National Championship in Frisco, Texas.
Fortunately, my dad and I had the chance to attend the game in Frisco against the Youngstown State Penguins on Jan. 7. We miraculously made our flight on that Saturday morning, despite the snowstorm in central Virginia. The snow and unplowed interstate at 5:30 in the morning could not stop us from cheering on the Dukes in the final game of the season. Arriving in Dallas at 10:35 a.m., we had 25 minutes to get the stadium for the early 11:00 a.m. start. We got in our seats with 10 minutes remaining in the first quarter to see JMU up 7-0 after a blocked punt led to a 14-yard touchdown pass from Schor. It seemed everyone in Toyota Stadium stood the entire game.
Just three minutes after his first, Schor threw his second touchdown pass of the day, this time for 18 yards. In the 2nd quarter, Khalid Abdullah ran in a touchdown from the goal line. It was followed by Youngstown State answering with a touchdown pass to cut the lead to 21-7 at halftime. Abdullah started off the second half with another touchdown run from the goal line. The atmosphere was any Dukes fan’s dream. JMU dominated attendance in what seemed like a stadium three-quarters full of Dukes fans. My father informed that due to the lack of Youngstown State ticket sales in previous playoff games, they only took 1,000 of the 4,000 tickets allotted for the game. Youngstown gave the remaining tickets to JMU, who sold out in one day after selling out of their original allotment. The game ended 28-14, with the Dukes bringing home the national title for the 2nd time in school history, and for the first time since 2004.
The field filled up quickly after the final kneel down. After thirteen years, JMU fans finally had something to storm the field about. Abdullah was presented with the Player of the Tournament award. Coach Mike Houston lifted up the NCAA trophy as the gold and purple confetti was pouring down, all to cap off the perfect season for the JMU Dukes.