Over the last decade, James Madison University’s football team has risen from underdog status to the national stage, thanks to both a highly devoted university administration and a well-oiled machine in recruiting and development. The program’s first and only National Championship in 2004 set the stage for the future with a solid recruiting class, while also giving the school’s administration the added push to go ahead with renovation plans at Bridgeforth Stadium. Completed for the 2011 season, the stadium now seats 25,000 fans, an increase of 10,000, while also adding club level hospitality suites and a new media center. But the big question on everyone’s mind, how did JMU football head coach Mickey Matthews turn this team into championship caliber? On Tap recently had the pleasure of speaking to Matthews about his team to find out.
From the beginning JMU has prided itself on working to find good talent, focusing on recruits from Virginia and the East Coast, and really taking the time to develop players. “The administration has definitely supported the program with the building of the Plecker Athletic Performance Center  and renovations of Bridgeforth Stadium, so all of that helps in recruiting,” Matthews says. Winning a national championship in 2004 and the school’s 2010 win versus top seeded Virginia Tech also helped open some doors to new recruits, he adds.
One of those developed recruits is senior quarterback Justin Thorpe, who Matthews says is possibly the best quarterback in the nation, let alone the league. “He is healthy this fall for the first time in two years, and if we can keep him in the lineup and healthy throughout the year, he could do great things on the field,” Matthews says, adding that Thorpe’s key strengths are his dynamic ability to make plays, run the ball, and throw it effectively. “He has to be our leader on the offense as we know our defense can shut people down, but we have to put points on the board,” Matthews explains.
Nowadays at JMU, it’s standard to go into a season with the goal of playing for a national championship, and Matthews says that this year’s team has more depth than he can remember in quite a while. This season has 17 starters returning from a squad that almost won the CAA with a backup freshman quarterback last year. “We could be very, very good…we expect to be in the playoffs, but we have to make it happen on the field this season,” Matthews says.
As for who could be JMU’s toughest competition this season, Matthews points to Towson University which has a returning quarterback and “impressive running back”, along with Old Dominion University who has “shown what they have been able to accomplish in a short period.” Matthews adds that JMU will “luckily” be at home this year when they play ODU. Other teams he points out are Villanova University, whose team has much improved and is back on track, as well as University of New Hampshire, Maine and William and Mary.
But Matthews cautions that it doesn’t matter who JMU plays, as everyone is tough in the league. “There isn’t a week you can take off in the CAA because it truly is a league where anyone can beat anyone,” he says, adding that because of this, pre-season polls really don’t matter in his eyes. Notably, JMU was third in CAA pre-season polls, with ODU coming in at first, followed by Towson in second.
“We could be very, very good…we expect to be in the playoffs, but we have to make it happen on the field this season.”
Matthews and his team will certainly have their work cut out for them, with a big game September 15 against West Virginia University at FedEx field – a national contender with a Heisman Trophy candidate. “I was asked if I wanted to play the game against West Virginia at FedEx and I thought about it and told our administration yes. It is a great opportunity for our program…but it is also about the experience to play in a National Football League stadium for our players,” Matthews says. “It is also great as we have a large base of our JMU Nation in northern Virginia area, so they get another chance to see the Dukes play.”
As for the game itself, Matthews says the team plans to approach it just like any other game – go out and play hard. “We know they have great talent on both sides of the ball and are very dynamic, as shown in their impressive win in the Orange Bowl over Clemson,” Matthews says, adding that his team has to try to execute, making some big plays on both offense and defense. “If we do that and stay healthy, we might have a chance, but this will be one of the greatest challenges our players will ever face on the football field,” Matthews says.
The success of JMU’s football program in recent years, along with the major improvements to the football facilities has created speculation that the school could be looking to make the move from the CAA to the FBS. ODU announced their move from FCS to FBS May 17, while Georgia State said it too is leaving the CAA. But Matthews says that it’s up to the conference, since JMU can’t move anywhere without an invitation. “They say that the media market had a lot to do with the recent expansion and Harrisonburg just isn’t a large one, but we have great fan support and a great product,” he adds. If JMU were to be invited, Matthews says he’s not sure which league would best align with the school but does know one thing, “We would prefer to stay on the East Coast for our fans.”
The James Madison University Dukes will play the West Virginia University Mountaineers on September 15 at FedEx Field: 1600 Fedex Way Landover, MD; 301-276-6000; www.redskins.com/fedexfield. For tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.com.