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Two of the big reasons VMI is in the playoffs: Reece Udinski and Seth Morgan

reece udinski
Reece Udinski. Photo by Chris Graham.

Reece Udinski is the foundation of VMI football’s growth into being an FCS playoff team. The injured senior quarterback, appropriately, will lead the Keydets onto the field at Bridgeforth Stadium for Saturday’s first-round playoff game with top-ranked JMU.

“We’re going to have him carry one of the flags, either the VMI flag or the American flag, on Saturday when we take the field. So when we take the field Saturday, we will not be running, we’ll be walking on the field as fast as Reece can go,” VMI coach Scott Wachenheim said.

Udinksi threw for 3,000+ yards in his sophomore and junior seasons, including a record-setting 3,276 yards and 19 TDs, with just five passes intercepted, in the 2019 campaign that saw VMI win five games in a season for the first time since 2003.

He went down to a torn ACL in the Keydets’ 38-37 OT win at Samford on March 20. Udinski actually suffered the injury in the game, but finished things out, throwing for 353 yards and three touchdowns, and the walk-off two-point conversion pass in the OT.

His replacement, redshirt freshman Seth Morgan, has shone in his three starts – throwing for 1,088 yards and eight TDs, with one pass intercepted, a 76.0 percent completion rate and a 171.7 passer rating.

Those numbers are actually a touch better than what Udinksi had put up this season – in four starts, Udinski threw for 1,087 yards, seven TDs, two INTs, with a 72.1 percent completion rate and a 136.3 passer rating.

seth morgan vmi
QB Seth Morgan rolls out to pass in VMI’s 41-14 win over Mercer earlier this season. Photo courtesy Chuck Steenburgh/VMI.

Morgan cites his close relationship with Udinski to helping him step up when he needed to this season.

“I got a chance to talk to him after the Samford game. He kind of gave me a heads up like, hey, man, like, I don’t think this is good, like, I think it might be your time to step up. And so just even after that conversation, I was starting to get my mind right,” Morgan said.

“I believe it was done that next following Sunday, I got a call from Coach Wach saying, you’re our starting quarterback for the rest of the season. And he said, I have all the confidence in you to get the job done. And, you know, at that point in the season, we had already had a winning season, we had accomplished a lot of things, so there’s not really much pressure on you, we’re just going to go out and do our thing. He said, I have all the confidence in you to win the SoCon championship, and now we were able to accomplish that,” Morgan said.

Morgan wasn’t all that highly recruited coming out of Mount Lebanon High School (Pittsburgh, Pa.), despite amassing 3,643 total yards as a senior, and throwing for a school-record 457 yards in one game his senior year.

In fact, he was all set to matriculate in college as a sort of civilian.

“I feel like a lot of teammates and I have this thing in common where we really didn’t get recruited out of high school, you know. Hey, my last game of high school, I was probably 160 pounds, so I wasn’t the cream of the crop. I had an offer to Dayton with an academic scholarship, and then this is my only full athletic scholarship offer. You know, just free college was very appealing to me, and I could see the work that they were putting in, and I could feel that the program was on the rise. And so that’s what really motivated me to come here,” Morgan said.

The presence of Udinski allowed Morgan to develop under Brian Sheppard in 2019 and then Sheppard’s replacement as offensive coordinator, Billy Cosh, whom Wachenheim credited with bringing Morgan to a place where he could step in and have the VMI offense not miss a beat mid-season.

Wachenheim has all the confidence in the world in Morgan as his team gets ready for the ultimate challenge coming this weekend.

“Seth is a confident young man, he’s a talented young man, and he has a lot of moxie,” Wachenheim said. “You know, he energizes his teammates, but he’s calm out there on the football field. We always knew he had a strong arm, we always knew he could run the ball a little bit. What we didn’t know is how good a decision-maker he would be under pressure. And we didn’t know how accurate a passer he would be in a live-game situation. And he’s completing 76 percent of his passes up to now and really playing an extremely high level, and I think that’s a tribute to the job coach Billy Cosh has done as our offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.”

VMI enters the game at JMU as a 14.5-point underdog, which is understandable. Everybody associated with the JMU program – the players, the coaches, the training staff, the people who sell popcorn at Bridgeforth – goes into each season thinking national championship.

For four decades, the VMI side just hoped to have a first winning season since 1981.

Could it be that the Keydets, playing with house money, have the advantage, with everything to gain, nothing to lose?

“My mindset, and I could probably say everybody else’s mindset on our team, we just want to go 1-0 every week. This is no different than any other week,” Morgan said. “We play a game, you know, the goal is to win the game. And so just, I don’t know if there’s more pressure. Obviously, I give them all the respect that they deserve. They’re an amazing football team, and we’ve got to game plan probably more than ever, but, you know, I’m confident in my ability, I’m confident in our team’s abilities, just we’ve got to go execute.”

OK, that all said, here’s reality: James Madison boasts the country’s best defense (allowing an other-worldly 175.6 yards per game in 2021), and in its five wins pitched two shutouts and didn’t allow an opponent to score more than 17.

The secondary, Morgan noted, “they’re athletic man, they’re fast, they fly to the ball, they’re competitive, they’re physical, you know, they’re everything you want to be across the board. Their safeties, corners, you know, so you’re going to have to be pretty accurate on Saturday just to complete these throws.”

And then the front seven: “They’re big boys, man, they’re big, but they can move, too,” Morgan said. “They’re deceptively fast, they’re big, they move, they’re physical, strong. It’s going to be a great challenge for our O line. But you know, I think they can hold it down. We’ve got running backs in protection, they’re going to do a good job, too. But, uh, yeah, they’re a tremendous defense, but we’re a pretty good offense.”

VMI ranks 16th in FCS in total offense (431.1 yards per game), and as you can see from the passing numbers, they can throw it a little bit – averaging 310.7 yards per game through the air.

Does that translate into at least a puncher’s chance for the Keydets on Saturday?

“We’ve been an underdog all year,” Morgan said. “I feel like no one really expected us to win SoCon championship this year. Nobody expected us to make the playoffs. So this isn’t really new for us. Just, it’s just another challenge on our list of things we need to accomplish. And so yeah, just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

And they might just get a pep talk from the guy who got them there before they head out into battle.

Wachenheim told a great story this week about Udinski addressing the team before The Citadel game last week.

“We had all the seniors talk, because, you know, it’s their last game in Foster Stadium, and, you know, Reece waited to last, you know, he’s quiet, didn’t want to talk,” Wachenheim said. “But then when all his other seniors talked, he got out there and said, you know, in about two seconds, hey, let’s go win this thing. And, you know, the group erupted.

“Our team loves Reece, and they respect him,” Wachenheim said. “Part of the reason Seth is motivated to play is he wants to, you know, play for his injured teammate, also. So he’s just a huge part of our team. You know, how do you treat a brother that can’t go out with you? I think that’s our team treats him.”

Story by Chris Graham

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