The obstacles have been plentiful for Virginia Military Institute this season.
There was the COVID-19 outbreak that sidelined at least 30 players during preseason training camp in January. Then the injury to quarterback Reece Udinski that ended his season in the same game he became the school’s career passing leader, leaving a redshirt freshman in charge of the Air Raid offense.
Oh, and that nearly four-decade history of not having so much as one winning season.
The Keydets overcame it all, going 6-1 to claim their first Southern Conference championship since 1977, their first national ranking and first postseason berth.
Their reward for that success? An economically logical game against James Madison, ranked No. 1 in the STATS Perform FCS Top 25 and one of the dominant programs in the Football Championship Subdivision, 60 miles down Interstate 81 in Harrisonburg on Saturday.
The Dukes have played for three of the last four national championships, and their victory in 2016 marks the only time North Dakota State hasn’t won it in nine years.
At JMU, VMI will face players who accepted preferred walk-on status — with hopes of eventually getting a scholarship — with the Dukes instead of accepting a full ride to VMI.
A military-style education clearly is not for everyone, but it has its attractions.
So did the Air Raid offense, which appealed to lightly recruited Seth Morgan, a 160-pound high school quarterback, along with Udinski moving on to Maryland next year because VMI does not have a graduate program. Morgan just never dreamed he’d be tasked with finishing off a magical season.
Not bad for a guy who said his only football scholarship offer came from VMI.
“Seth ... has a lot of moxie. He energizes his teammates, but he’s calm out there on the field,” coach Scott Wachenheim said. “We always knew he had a strong arm. We always knew he could run the ball a little bit. We didn’t know how good of a decision-maker he would be under pressure and we didn’t know how accurate of a passer he would be.”
Morgan has completed 76% of his pass attempts, with eight TDs and one interception.
Having 6-foot-4 Jakob Herres has helped. Herres last year caught 72 passes for 1,091 yards and eight TDs, entered the transfer portal after the season and then decided to stay.
“Sometimes you realize there’s no place like home,” Wachenheim said.
This year, Herres has 67 catches for 807 yards and seven TDs in just seven games.
“He makes me look good sometimes,” Morgan said. “He does some tremendous things.”
And he makes VMI look dangerous, James Madison coach Curt Cignetti said.
“You see a lot of different kind of offenses, but this one is a little different in terms of the way they spread you out with the amount of throws and the fast tempo that they do play with,” Cignetti said this week. “We’re going to have to do a really good job up front of pressuring the quarterback and really have great coverage and tackle well.”
The Keydets suffered a huge loss when Udinski reportedly tore his ACL in a road game against Samford. Udinski finished the game, completing a 45-yard drive for the tying touchdown, then a fourth-down, 18-yard pass to Herres in overtime and a two-point conversion pass to Michael Jackson for a 38-37 win.
Udinski will carry either the American flag or VMI flag onto the field on Saturday, Wachenheim said. “We’ll be walking on the field as fast as Reece can go,” he said.
For the first playoff game in school history, what could be better?
“We’re going up to Staunton, stay in a hotel for two nights. For me and my Keydets, are you kidding me?” Wachenheim said. “Air conditioning, hotel meals. We’re not going to Crozet to eat. We’ve got maid service. We don’t have to march at 7 a.m.
“This is a pleasure trip, right?”
One 40 years in the making.