James Madison coach Curt Cignetti used the term twice after his team’s playoff quarterfinal win over North Dakota Sunday: “success breeds confidence.”
He was talking in particular about standout freshman wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr. — who’s compiled 11 catches for 275 yards and three touchdowns in his first two playoff games — and senior quarterback Cole Johnson, who’s looked stronger and stronger each week.
But it also could seem to apply to the team as a whole, particularly the offensive unit. It’s a group that, after some early season struggles, has seemed to find a groove, smoothly blending its foundational run game with explosive shots from the arm of Johnson.
Lead running back Percy Agyei-Obese said this week that he feels the Dukes are playing their best football right now.
“Everyone's learned,” the senior said. “The chemistry is amazing on the team.”
With that, top-ranked JMU (7-0) will try to tackle its biggest challenge to date this season, a trip to No. 4-ranked Sam Houston State (8-0) for a Saturday afternoon matchup in the FCS semifinals.
The Bearkats are 15-0 all-time in the playoffs at their Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, Texas, and the Dukes are seeking their first playoff victory away from their Bridgeforth Stadium in the last four seasons.
“You just got to be ready for everything,” Agyei-Obese said of playing on the road. “You can't let anything deter you from the mindset you're ready to be at for the game."
Despite the higher ranking in the FCS media poll, JMU will travel this round because of the seeding in the FCS playoff bracket, with Sam Houston State No. 2 and JMU No. 3. South Dakota State, the top seed, is playing Delaware in Saturday’s other semifinal.
Since a national title win over Youngstown State in neutral Frisco, Texas, at the end of the 2016 playoffs, JMU has gotten to play nine of its 12 subsequent playoff games at home, including first-round and quarterfinal victories this year.
But the three trips outside of Harrisonburg in the playoffs since 2017, including a pair of national title game appearances, have resulted in losses.
Senior defensive end Mike Greene feels performing on the road will take a level of sharpness, in unfamiliar surroundings.
“Just staying sharp with everything that we got: with meetings, being on time. With dinner, everything,” Greene said. “Just trying to stay as sharp as possible and stay on schedule, I think is one of the most important things to not get off track."
Sam Houston State coach K.C. Keeler painted a picture of why Bowers Stadium can be a tough place to play, and why traveling in the playoffs can be difficult. For one, at 2 p.m. kickoff time Saturday, he said, the sun — there’s a forecasted high temperature in the mid 80s Friday — will be beating down on JMU’s sideline and going down behind Sam Houston’s sideline.
And, in general, playoff travel “can absolutely wear you out,” said Keeler, who was hired at SHSU in 2014, not long after an 11-season tenure as the coach at JMU's CAA rival Delaware (2002-12).
“The fans are awesome, the atmosphere is going to be intense,” senior Sam Houston defensive end Joseph Wallace said of Bowers Stadium. “And we take playing at home serious. That's our field, and you're not going to get out [of] there easy with a win.”
Maximum capacity at Bowers Stadium on Saturday will be 50%, 7,000 fans.
On the field, Johnson has been a primary catalyst for the ever burgeoning JMU offense. After nearly losing his starting job earlier in the season, Johnson, Cignetti said, is now playing like a veteran.
He’s making things happen on the ground when plays break down, and delivering the ball on cue. Cignetti said he has total faith and confidence in Johnson.
“He's unflappable,” Cignetti said. “He's got really good poise. I think he processes real quickly. … He's our guy and I wouldn't take anybody else right now."
Johnson passed for a season-high 251 yards against North Dakota, and the Dukes balanced it with 217 yards on the ground, led by 128 yards and two scores on a season-high 27 carries from Agyei-Obese.
“The quarterback play has definitely made them even more dangerous than they've been,” said Keeler, whose defense has held teams to an average of 68.9 yards on the ground. Sam Houston is averaging 464.8 yards of total offense itself, led by quarterback Eric Schmid, the Southland player of the year.
JMU has made the national championship game all but once the last four seasons, including a 2016 national title run that boasted a 65-7 rout of the Bearkats in the quarterfinals. Getting back to the title game will require getting over the road hurdle.
The Dukes feel up to the test.
"Everyone's prepared in the locker room,” Agyei-Obese said. “Everyone has the right mentality. We all know what needs to be done.”