Through the Eyes of the Underdog: What it’s like to be a Visiting Opponent on College Gameday

By: Kyle Douty

ESPN’s College GameDay is an ESPN program where top college football analysts travel to campuses around America where the top game will be played that week. They set up a mobile ESPN studio somewhere on that campus and proceed to discuss the college football games happening on that day while concentrating especially on the game at hand hosted by the football team of whatever university they find themselves.  Often times they travel to and conduct the show at schools like Florida, Alabama, and Ohio State. The fact that College Game Day was in Harrisonburg, Virginia for a game on October 24, 2015 between the University of Richmond and James Madison University was rare and unexpected. The only other Virginia university they had ever been to was Virginia Tech, a perennial power house in collegiate football.

All the focus was on James Madison University. Every analyst on the show picked JMU to win including guest star Dierks Bentley all while Lee Corso was embarrassingly wearing a James Madison costume. The entire show was going over the top, this could be because senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s College Studio, Lee Fitting, is an alumnus of JMU. The whole campus was fueled by 30,000 fans, alumni, and students whose focus was primarily on the party brought to you by fourteen dollar thirty racks, seven dollar fifths, and of course…The Home Depot, instead of the game at hand. “LEE CORSO DOES BUTT CHUGS” and “Bitchmond” were just a couple of the numerous less than classy signs featured (on air) by JMU students. The team brought every player and personnel over to the game day desk while they were on air, which has never been done before. They would then go on to debut the brand new helmets they would be sporting that Saturday afternoon. How they would look on this stage was taking complete precedence over how they were going to prepare.

Meanwhile during the College GameDay eruption at JMU, six Richmond players stand around the high definition showing of GameDay on a television bolted to the wall in a Staunton hotel room twenty miles south on route 81. Sophomore punter D.J. Helkowski stares in shock regarding what he was currently watching next to his teammates. They were witnessing their opponents football program showcasing themselves on national TV.

“I could see how one might get distracted with GameDay being on their campus but it still was unexpected to see.”

As the players continued to watch the show, their focus and readiness for the upcoming game increased even more.

“We knew we weren’t favored to win but at the same time we were ranked 11th in the nation. It wasn’t like they were supposed to blow us out. As we sat around viewing this, I knew we were ready to go.”

From there the team was instructed to meet in one of the hotel conference rooms where they were greeted by an irate head coach, Danny Rocco.

“We had seen all the hype and we had all seen terrible things being said about our coach from homemade posters and screaming fans. Still to this day it was the most passionate I have ever seen him in the heat of the moment. He quickly addressed it in an intense, but focused fashion reminding each and every single one of us why we were there. I know that helped me be more ready for this game.”

Helkowski is no stranger to the big stage, in just his second collegiate game he had to take the field as an eighteen year old freshman against a strong UVA team surrounded by 60,000 screaming fans in Scott Stadium.

“[The first time I took the field] I was definitely intimidated but I knew the assignments I was responsible for and luckily I was able to complete those while contributing to my team. Before we played JMU I was focused and prepared to do the exact same thing again.”

Minutes prior to kick off, the team stands ready in the locker room. The next few hours would dictate whether or not they would be victorious against fourth ranked JMU.

“First and foremost we all had one thing on our minds, and that was the game. We knew that was the only reason we were there. Secondly, we felt we had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder after publicly viewing our team being disregarded on College GameDay.”

Richmond would go on to defeat JMU, as the U of R offense dominated the James Madison defense scoring an astounding 59 points defeating their opponents all while ruining the afternoon that was at one point, a celebration of one of the best teams in FCS collegiate football.

“Luckily we were able to shut out all the surrounding noise and win the game. As a punter, you know it was a good day when your team only needs you to come onto the field one time….I’ve kicked game winning field goals in high school, had a punt that pinned UVA back on the 2 yard line, and been on a part of a team that won a CAA Conference title, but still, that win against JMU trumps every football experience I’ve had.”

The victory that day would propel Richmond to go on to share the regular season conference title with JMU and W&M for the number 1 seed. In retrospect, having those numerous distractions prior to that one game cost James Madison immensely. If College Gameday had never made an appearance in Harrisonburg, outcomes easily could have turned toward JMU’s favor.

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