- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2020

Curt Cignetti won a national collegiate football title working on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama, so you can understand why he leans on Alabama analogies to describe the state of affairs at his latest coaching stop — James Madison, where he has served as coach for the past 13 months.

For instance, here’s Cignetti’s take on whether he considers James Madison and North Dakota State, who will square off Saturday in the Football Championship Series title game, to have a rivalry.

“You can call it what you want. Is Clemson and Alabama a rivalry?” he posited. North Dakota State has “been to this game basically every year but one the last eight years, and this is JMU’s third trip in the last four years. I think in a sense, it’s a rivalry, even though we don’t play every year. By nature of what’s happened in recent history, it’s become a rivalry in its own sense.”

And here’s his response when asked to recall when the Dukes’ tradition of football excellence really sunk in once he arrived on campus.

“When you walk into a place like this, it’s like walking into Alabama,” Cignetti said. “You’re expected to win the conference championship. You’re expected to make a run through the playoffs. You felt that every single day, that based on the resources you’ve been given, you should be kind of in that position.”

The football powerhouse blooming in Harrisonburg, Virginia, may not receive the same amount of attention as the Crimson Tide, but the Dukes have an opportunity to build on their own growing football heritage and clinch their second national title in four years when they play in Saturday’s title game in Frisco, Texas.

But for all the Alabama talk, James Madison is actually more of the Clemson in this comparison.

Dynastic North Dakota State won seven FCS national titles in the 2010s. The Dukes picked up their program’s second championship in 2017, then lost to North Dakota State by four in the following season’s title game. Saturday’s rematch is the Dukes’ chance at revenge.

Though the gridiron success at James Madison is fairly recent, the program has some professional pedigree. Washington Redskins All-Pro wide receiver Gary Clark played for the Dukes. So did five-time Super Bowl champion linebacker and defensive end Charles Haley and Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood — he of the wide-right field goal that would have won Super Bowl XXV. The most recent NFL success story belongs to Redskins rookie cornerback Jimmy Moreland.

Moreland caught scouts’ eyes starring for James Madison’s defense, where he pulled off interception after interception. Washington drafted the diminutive corner in the seventh round in 2019. By season’s end, he was starting in the slot.

Over rookie OTAs (organized team activities) and training camp, then-coach Jay Gruden would praise Moreland’s knowledge of route concepts and say he was well-coached at James Madison. Translation: the Dukes’ program is strong enough to produce NFL-ready players like any FBS school.

It has helped to have coaches like Cignetti and Mike Houston, the latter of whom guided the Dukes to their consecutive title game appearances. When Houston accepted an FBS job with East Carolina, the program hired Cignetti — whose Elon squad had just beaten the Dukes to end their 19-game home winning streak.

Houston’s last season, 2018, was marked by frustration and missed expectations with a record of just 9-4. Yet early on, Cignetti was struck by James Madison’s reputation around the country.

“When the [preseason] polls came out, people had us one or two,” he recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t see us quite like that coming out of spring ball, but the polls did. We became that kind of team through fall camp and the season.”

Since then, Cignetti’s team has gone 14-1 across the regular season and playoffs. Running back Percy Agyei-Obese leads the way for the offense with 19 rushing touchdowns. The Dukes run twice as often as they throw, but quarterback Ben DiNucci has posted stellar numbers, including a 71.3 completion percentage and 27-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Both the Dukes and the Bison have top-10 rushing offenses, but James Madison may have the edge because of its FCS-best rushing defense that gives up only 61.1 yards per game.

It would be considered an upset, at least a minor one, for James Madison to prevent the top-ranked Bison from winning their eighth title. If the Dukes pull it off, they might earn a more Alabama-esque position in the college football landscape.

“There’s very few schools really positioned to be successful year in and year out,” Cignetti said. “There’s a lot of reasons for that, but it comes down to administrative support and fan and alumni support and resources. Once you build that tradition, the thing just sort of keeps running as long as you keep investing in the program.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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