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January 6, 2017

Mike Houston

Bryan Schor

Gage Steele

Khalid Abdullah

Frisco, Texas

THE MODERATOR: Mike, congratulations on a great season, give us an overview.

MIKE HOUSTON: Thanks a lot. Obviously, really excited to be here. Honored to be representing James Madison University and the state of Virginia here in the FCS National Championship Game. I think certainly every coach and player in the country has this goal when the season starts back in August, and certainly this is a goal that our team talked about back during spring practice and during the summer. So it's really special to be able to be here in Frisco, Texas, and be able to represent the Colonial Athletic Association.

It's been an extremely special year at James Madison, and I'm very, very proud of the way our young men have represented the institution on a weekly basis and the way they've played on the field, and I'm equally as proud of the way our young men have represented the institution off the field. So we are blessed to have outstanding players and outstanding young men in our program. They've worked very, very hard the last two weeks to prepare for this ballgame after a very tough playoff schedule that resulted in us being able to knock off five-time defending national champion North Dakota State at the Fargo Dome to give us the right to play in this game against a very talented Youngstown State team.

So our kids have completed our preparation. We've finished our walkthrough about 30 minutes ago for our final team deal that we're going to do before kickoff. So our team is prepared and ready to play, and I expect us to go out and play with a tremendous amount of energy, intensity and enthusiasm tomorrow and represent James Madison in the way it deserves to be represented.

THE MODERATOR: Let's do some introductions first. Khalid Abdullah, senior running back, national leader with 20 rushing touchdowns and 23 total touchdowns. He's an All-American. Bryan Schor, the quarterback, a junior, Colonial Player of the Year, and winner of the Dudley Award as the number one Division I player in the state of Virginia. And Gage Steele, a senior, the Dukes' leading tackler, and All-Colonial.

Let's direct the questions to the student-athletes initially.

Q. Gage, I'd like to ask you about James Madison scores a lot of points, and recently in the last half of the year Youngstown State has too. From a defensive standpoint, how do you avoid getting demoralized and swinging back and forth emotionally in these sorts of games?
GAGE STEELE: It really takes us as a team to stay focused and playing with each other the most. There's going to be momentum swings in the game, and we know that. It's just that type of ball that we play up here. But it's just staying focused on the task at hand, making sure we're playing together as a family, and making sure that we never let anything really bother us and we just keep on working hard.

That's something that we focus on before the games and also during the games, we're making sure that we stay together and stay playing as a team, and making sure that we keep on executing no matter what happens.

Q. Gage, I know before the season when we talked there was a lot about all the individual pieces you guys had on defense, all the great talent individually you had, but you hadn't quite put it all together. How did you put it all together, especially recently as you got better and better throughout the year and have been dominant even through the postseason?
GAGE STEELE: I'm going to start off by saying it's a big hat's off to the coaching staff. I feel like they've brought in a tremendous plan. But it also just took all of us. Like you said, we have players on the defense, and we just really needed to buy into what the coaching staff was bringing in, making sure everybody was staying focused on doing their job. That's something that we really harp on when we're talking about playing to the best of our ability.

But it's that the coaching staff told us if we, you know, really just depend on one another to do our job and make sure that we're doing it right, we can truly do amazing things. So that's just something that we've really harped on making sure everybody does what they're supposed to do, and we'll be able to make our plan work.

Q. Gage, this is the first time you guys are playing in a neutral territory, but JMU fans travel well. What are you expecting out of the crowd and the atmosphere in general?
GAGE STEELE: What I've seen so far, I see there are a lot of JMU alum coming to the game. Which is an amazing thing to see because with all of this publicity and stuff like that you get to see everybody coming out to the games. I've heard a lot of people are going to be here, and it's almost going to be like a home game. It's really nice to see people come out, old players, alumni, come support us at the game. I mean, it's an amazing thing to see everybody come out and come together as one at this big stage. It's something that we want to see, and it's definitely going to help us in the game.

Q. Bryan, you've come a long way since being thrown into that Richmond game last year. Can you talk about the journey you've taken coming into the season, not sure if you're going to be starting or not?
BRYAN SCHOR: I would say the journey I've taken, it hasn't been alone. I think what's really helped me become a better player is immediately the players around me and the coaches have put a lot of confidence in me. What I mean when I say it's not been alone, is the guys really took me in and they made me comfortable. They put the faith in me that I could be a really good quarterback, and having that belief in me has really kind of made me step my game up a little bit and do the extra things that I needed to do to help us improve. I've got to say thanks to all those guys that really made me feel confident this year, and really helped me out.

Q. Can you speak to the crowd? Again, it sounds like it's going to be heavy purple tomorrow, and how that might help in this sort of setting?
KHALID ABDULLAH: It's definitely always good. We're playing a National Championship, so that's a good thing. But you have to look at it as a road game, because we're not playing in Bridgeforth Stadium. So many JMU alums, so many different fans, JMU Nation as a whole are traveling to Frisco, Texas, a long way from home to see us play. It's definitely something that will benefit us in the game. I think it benefits us most when you think about momentum swings and how our team deals with that, with our crowd having so many JMU people in there. I think that our momentum swing won't be as beneficial for the other team, being as though most of our fans will be in the stadium.

So I think that's something that we can look forward to, and that will definitely help us in the game, and it's something we can definitely capitalize on as the game wears on.

Q. Bryan, you tore up North Dakota State last week. Now you're facing two of the best defensive ends in all of college football. Has your game plan changed from last week to this week to compensate for those two? Or are you going to do the same and trust in your offensive line?
BRYAN SCHOR: I think I'm going to trust my offensive line. We have seen a lot of talented defensive ends, and it's a credit to the defensive ends we're going to see tomorrow. We've watched them on tape. They're very talented players. I'm going to have faith in our guys. I've had faith in them all year, and they've done a really good job protecting whichever quarterback was in the game.

So immediately coming out, I don't think we're going to change too much of our game plan to really look at that. I think we're going to trust our offensive line to get their jobs done tomorrow.

Q. Bryan, Youngstown State had two starting safeties in their last game, and Eastern Washington did have a little bit of success there on the ball. What did you see from them that you could exploit or what did you see from them period in that game?
BRYAN SCHOR: I saw two new safeties than I've seen on film from the previous games. But I think they did a pretty good job. When you watch Eastern Washington, you know they're a talented offense and they're going to make plays regardless who is in the secondary. So I think we're going to have our hands full when it comes to the safeties tomorrow. I'm fully expecting them to play a really good game and challenge the wide receivers. So I don't know if there's something we're going to exploit. I think it's just something that they're going to have to cover our guys and trust our wide receivers to get open space.

Q. What to you think about the crowd? Do you have a sense how it might break down tomorrow and how it might benefit James Madison?
MIKE HOUSTON: I know there are a lot of people in purple in Frisco, Texas, I know that. I think it will be a majority JMU crowd tomorrow. I think our players feed off an electric environment. They have all year long. You look at our best performances of the year week in and week out, and it's been the biggest crowds. It's been the games with the most electricity. So I think it will be something that will fuel the kids, especially early in the ballgame.

Q. You've been in a National Championship Game before. What is similar, what's different? What kind of experiences do you think that's bringing today?
MIKE HOUSTON: I think the big thing is being able to anticipate the schedule leading up to the game a little bit. The two things I stressed to the players is they've got to ignore all the noise and distractions. They've got to keep their focus where their focus has to stay, and that's on the game. Really focus on Youngstown State and trying to win the game. Don't get caught up in other stuff because the other stuff doesn't really matter.

The other thing is just being able to handle the stage tomorrow. It will be an electric atmosphere when they take the field. That's something that they can't prepare for.

So I told them, enjoy the moment and as soon as we get through that moment, we'll get ready for kickoff, you've got to dial in and focus on one play at a time, doing our job.

Q. How have your players handled that aspect of it over the past week? Ramping it up when you need them to ramp it up and focus, and relaxing and enjoying it when they need to?
MIKE HOUSTON: Pretty good. By Wednesday, by the time we got on the airplane, they were tired of practicing. So they were ready to get down there to Frisco, so I thought that was a good change for them. I ripped them pretty good this morning and got them locked back in. So that was good for them too.

So they're doing good. It's so much. Yesterday was just such a hectic day with a lot of different things. But I thought when we got time to truly practice, I thought they were very locked in. I thought during meetings this morning they were very focused. We had a really, really crisp walkthrough a little while ago. So I feel like they're prepared to play at a high level tomorrow.

Q. Coach, what can you use on your semifinal performance against North Dakota State and now against Youngstown, being they're both Missouri Valley Conference teams?
MIKE HOUSTON: I think that was a great experience for our kids. Because that stage you can't prepare for either. I don't know how anybody can prepare for that if they're in the Fargo Dome. So I think that experience was very good because they had tremendous adversity. They had to really fight through together to overcome that adversity. They were playing a very physical football team from one of the -- one of these two conferences is the best conference in the nation. I think nobody can argue that fact. So you're playing a team that's very similar to Youngstown State, and style of play, philosophy, foundation that the program's built on. So I just think that whole experience right there was probably as good of preparation as you can have for this game right here.

Q. Have you seen any changes from what they do defensively now that they have different guys in that position?
MIKE HOUSTON: Not really. And I agree with Bryan. I think they did a good job in that ballgame against Eastern Washington. They're physical players, good tacklers. I expect to see them down in the box a little bit to try to stop Khalid. I think we have to do a good job of being balanced with the run and the pass, being able to keep them off base. Hopefully the experience factor tips in our favor because of the game we're in. Because they are kids that don't have quite the game experience that the players they replaced had.

Q. You did a great job in containing North Dakota's running game last week. But Youngstown State's Jody Webb has 600-something yards this postseason. Are you guys going to be focused on him or are you going to keep the same thing that you did last week and just go right after the quarterback?
MIKE HOUSTON: I think we've got to do a great job being sound against the run. We've got to do a great job with our fits. The biggest thing with him is trying to keep him from getting to the second level. He's such an explosive player that we can't let him get out in space. We have to keep him contained up, don't give him the creases, play very sound, and that way it will keep him from getting out.

The other thing they do a really good job with him is leaking him out in the pass game. So we have to do a good job accounting for him in the backfield, on drop-back pass or play-action pass.

Q. Coach, you mentioned that the CAA is one of the toughest conferences out there. What do you think that says to how prepared you guys are? You faced the number one defense in the country. You've faced the number one offense in the country. What do you think that says for how prepared your team is for whatever Youngstown State throws at you?
MIKE HOUSTON: I think that the thing that prepared us for North Dakota State was playing teams like Richmond, Villanova, New Hampshire. Those are the teams that when you look at North Dakota State or Youngstown State, those are the teams that are most similar to them. The Richmond game was a toss-up. We won that game late. If their quarterback had stayed healthy, I think they would have been in the mix here late in the playoff as well.

So I think we play in a league that challenges you week in and week out to play your best and play a physical brand of football. I think that's the same thing you see from the Missouri Valley. So I think you see two teams that have kind of, for lack of a better analogy, have been prepared similarly for this ballgame throughout the year.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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