FCS PLAYOFFS | Right this way: Khalid Abdullah, JMU headed to FCS championship game
But the James Madison running back was able to see the big picture and look beyond his own situation in the minutes after the Dukes pulled off a stunning 27-17 victory at North Dakota State on Friday in the FCS semifinals.
“I think we are headed in the right direction,” he told reporters after the game. “We have the right pieces as far as the coaches and the players. I will be gone and a couple of other guys will be gone next year. But the young guys are all bought in. Nobody has one foot out, one foot in. That says a lot about our program.”
For now the immediate future is bright for the Dukes, who advanced to the FCS playoffs in 2014 and 2015 but lost at home in the first round both times to teams from lower-ranked conferences: Liberty of the Big South 21-16 in 2014 and Colgate of the Patriot League 44-38 last year.
But this year JMU has posted playoff wins at home against fellow CAA Football rival New Hampshire and top-ranked Sam Houston State and then on the road against five-time defending champion North Dakota State. NDSU had won 22 playoff games in a row and not lost at home in the playoffs since 1991.
“It is a tough place to play but we have a special group of guys,” JMU quarterback Bryan Schor said.
The Dukes (13-1), who won the national title in 2004, got 180 yards on the ground and 51 yards worth of receptions from Abdullah, ASN's FCS Player of the Year, on Friday. JMU will face Youngstown State, which beat Eastern Washington 40-38 on Saturday in the other semifinal game, at noon on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas for the title.
Abdullah has run the ball 272 times for 1708 yards this year for 20 touchdowns and a long run of 85 yards. He is averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
“We are lucky to have him on our team,” Schor said.
The same could be said of first-year head coach Mike Houston, who had been at The Citadel. He took over for Everett Withers, who headed to Texas State after two seasons in Harrisonburg, Virginia with JMU.
“God has blessed me in a lot of ways,” Houston told ESPN after the win Friday. “I came in and I had a lot of kids who bought in. I have a great coaching staff. It is trust, it is family and it is playing hard as you can every snap. It is a special bunch in there.”
One of them is Abdullah, from Heritage High, and the latest product of Newport News, Va., to help take a team from his home state to a national title game.
Quarterback Michael Vick, a Newport News native, guided Virginia Tech to the national title game against winner Florida State in the 2000 Sugar Bowl.
Abdullah, listed at 5-foot-10, 220 pounds, played in nine games as a freshman in 2013 and ran 68 times for 347 yards.
As a sophomore he carried the ball 113 times for 547 yards in 12 games.
Last season as a junior he had a breakthrough season as he ran the ball 194 yards and gained 975 yards with 13 touchdowns. He made the CAA Football Academic All-Conference Team and was the JMU Athletic Director’s Scholar-Athlete for the fall of 2015.
The offensive line “blocked so well out there today, I felt like anybody could have ran through the holes they made. I probably could have put my mom in. She could have ran through some of those holes that big (lineman) Matt Frank created. I’m just proud of them,” Abdullah said. “Bryan Schor played well today and we came out with the win, most importantly.”
JMU and Youngstown State will meet for the fifth time, with the Dukes trailing in the series 3-1. YSU won national titles in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1997 and 1999. The last meeting was in the 2006 playoffs when the Penguins won 35-31 in Youngstown.
But the Dukes have shown they can knock off one dynasty. The last CAA school to make the title game was Towson in 2013. JMU beat Montana in the 2004 title contest.
“You go out there and win five times in row, five national championships, you are doing something right,” Abdullah said of North Dakota State. “The fact we knocked off a team like that showed … where we are headed.”
Now they are headed to Texas for the FCS Championship game.
Photo courtesy JMU Athletics