RICHMOND, Va. – James Madison took over the top perch in the Football Championship Subdivision with a thrilling regular season comeback at home against Appalachian State. At the time, many viewed the September matchup as a likely preview of the national championship.
The Dukes (12-1) are now just one victory away from the title game — they play Montana (13-1) at home on Friday night — and could face a team against whom they made a remarkable comeback if they reach the finals. It just won’t be the three-time champion Mountaineers.
Richmond, like James Madison a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, ended Appalachian State’s FCS record 13-game postseason winning streak with a 33-13 victory on the Mountaineers’ home field, turning seven turnovers into stunning domination.
The Spiders (11-3) play at Northern Iowa (12-2) in the other semifinal on Saturday, and first-year coach Mike London thinks it’s no surprise that half the field still standing in the second tier of college football comes from the CAA — the conference has put five teams in the 16-team playoffs two years running and had one reach the title game in four of five years.
Delaware won the championship in 2003, and James Madison won it in 2004.
“Playing that caliber of competition week in and week out, for us a lot of times, you find out what kind of team you are,” London said this week. “You can either crack under the circumstances or rise above it. This year’s team has risen above those circumstances.”
The Spiders losses came against Virginia, at CAA rival Villanova and to James Madison, 38-31, when the Dukes scored 15 points in the final 59 seconds for another stunning comeback.
London would love a rematch next weekend, but there’s work for both to do first.
The Dukes have only played Montana once before, and their 31-21 victory in 2004 came in the national championship game, making them the last team besides Appalachian State to win it.
Rodney Landers was a redshirting freshman on that team, and he’s now the Dukes’ starting quarterback and a finalist for the Walter Payton Award as the best player in the FCS.
Getting ready for a new opponent is tough, he said, especially considering the stakes.
“It’s kind of hard to gauge them because they are on the other side of the country,” the multi-threat quarterback with more than 3,300 yards of offense and 37 touchdowns in 2008 said.
And seeing how they look on film only makes them more imposing.
“Their offensive line is so big we need two screens to get them all on the screen when we’re watching tape,” Dukes coach Mickey Matthews, in his 10th season, joked this week.
“It’s probably going to be our speed and quickness against their size.”
The Grizzlies, seeded fourth in the playoffs, are no stranger to big stages. They have won 11 consecutive Big Sky Conference titles and are in the playoffs for the 16th consecutive season, a record. They have played for the championship five times, winning in 1995 and 2001.
The Grizzlies are looking forward to playing at JMU.
“You can look at is as a challenge, but it’s also kind of fun to go play on the road,” senior Montana quarterback Cole Bergquist said. “You’ve got the whole crowd booing you. The student section is screaming profanities at you. It kind of gets you fired up.”
An announcement that last weekend’s game would be televised likely convinced some fans to watch from home on a bitter cold night, but Matthews said the crowd was probably the loudest he’s seen at Bridgeforth Stadium, and he’s counting on the same on a frigid Friday night.
So is Montana receiver and offensive captain Mike Ferriter.
“It’s something different for us,” the senior said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been on the road, and we really haven’t gone into a hostile environment yet this year.”
Out in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Richmond will have the same experience, although their game won’t be played in the elements, but on the artificial turf and warmth of the UNI Dome.
The road trip is not an ideal situation at this point in the season, especially with players in the midst of final exams, but it’s better than the alternative, London said.
“You’ve just got to go out there and play the game,” he said.
The Spiders left Thursday for Iowa so they could practice in the dome on Thursday night and then have their walk-through there on Friday, and bruising tailback Josh Vaughan said there’s no time to let the environment or aches and pains slow them with stakes this high.
“Come game-time, the best medicine is your adrenaline,” he said.
Although far away, Northern Iowa has a surprisingly deep history with the CAA. The Spiders will be the fifth league team in a row they have played in the postseason, and they are 3-1 in those games. The Panthers ousted Maine 40-15 and New Hampshire 36-34 so far this postseason.
“Up and down the East Coast, they definitely know who UNI is,” Panthers coach Mark Farley said, also noting the game will be televised nationally. “Hopefully we can expand on that.”
Richmond is the only unseeded team to have come this far, and becoming the first team to beat Appalachian State in the playoffs in four years left the Spiders feeling confident.
Not even a first experience on artificial turf has London concerned.
“Everybody says … that it’s a fast track,” London said. “Well, we’ve got a fast team, and so if it makes them fast, I’m sure it’s going to make us fast, too. I’ll take those odds.”
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