Sunday, August 14, 2011

James Madison Football Preview

When I was a student at Old Dominion 15 years ago, the composition of the Colonial Athletic Association was noticably different.  The teams in the league were ODU, W&M, George Mason, VCU, UNCW, JMU, East Carolina, Richmond and American (?).  At the turn of the century, ECU left for C-USA, Richmond went to the A-10 and American decided to take a step down to the Patriot League.  While ODU/VCU may be considered the biggest CAA rivalry now, as a student I hated James Madison more than anyone. 

My sister attended ODU a couple years before I did and she talked way more about disliking the Dukes more than anyone else.  In the early 90's the basketball team was relevant under the guidance of Lefty Drisell and even in the late '90's, I can remember a close contest decided late by Cal Bowdler's free throws.  So the basketball rivalry was one of two reasons I couldn't stand James Madison.

The other reason for disdain for the Dukes is simple jealousy that they had football.  I followed ODU basketball because both the men's and women's teams were the flagships of the athletic department.  But football has been my passion for as long as Jim Kelly was quarterbacking the Bills in the late 80's.  I would videotape Bills games and watch them over and over, learning (in a very amateurish manner) the ins and outs of football.  All my friends from high school went to UVa, Virginia Tech or James Madison.  And they all had their own football teams!  I had a great women's basketball team and a men's team that was on the decline.  Meanwhile, the Dukes were part of a football conference with other CAA teams like W&M and Richmond.

I provide this information so the reader understands how exciting the October 29 matchup between the football Dukes and Monarchs is for me.  Yes basketball is fun but it was never my passion like football has been.  The Athletics Department also understands the importance of the game, bringing back the underrated Oyster Bowl from the grave.  All-time greats like Roger Staubach and Bruce Smith participated in the event, so its history is more than a little rich.  Last year's game against William and Mary was fun and entertaining, but I expect the atmosphere between ODU and JMU to surpass that contest.

Old Dominion takes on long-time CAA rival James Madison on October 29.

Football History
James Madison University was founded in 1902 and the school has had a football program only since 1972.  Despite such a short existence they've accumulated a phenomenal record of 247-187-4.  They have claimed at least a share in four conference champioships and won the 2004 FCS national title behind standout Curtis Keaton.  The Dukes have been coached by Mickey Matthews the last twelve seasons, and he enters the 2011 season with a record of 88-56 during his tenure with the program. 

Special attention should be given to the expansion project of their home field, Bridgeforth Stadium.  Before recent expansion the stadium seated upwards of 20K.  You can view the amazing transformation that has taken place by visiting the dedicated thread at the CAAZone

Bridgeforth Stadium as of early August 2011.  This venue may be the best in the CAA.

2010 Highlights
It's difficult to find one word to describe the 2010 season.  In the second week of the season they upset the Virginia Tech Hokies, a BCS team that would go on to win the 2010 ACC title.  After starting the season 3-0, the Dukes would end up with a record of only 6-5.  They lost four of their last five games against ranked FCS opponents by seven points or less.  The defense was ferocious, allowing a combined 102 points in the first three quarters of their eleven games.  However, the offense failed to produce sufficient points and/or milk the clock with their leads, and the worn-down defense gave up 60 points in four quarters (including three in overtime). 

James Madison defeated eventual-ACC champion Virginia Tech on the road in 2010.
There was only one All-CAA First Teamer on James Madison, defensive tackle Ronnel Brown.  DR Bryant and Lamar Middleton tied for the team lead in sacks with 2.5 each while Stephon Robertson led the team with 8.5 TFL.  Second Team running back Jamal Sullivan led the Dukes with more than 700 rushing yards, while Kerby Long led the team with 16 catches and 283 receiving yards.  This was not a team that moved the ball through the air.  This team had the talent to beat Virginia Tech on the road, but the offense held them back from reaching its full potential. 

History with Old Dominion
This will be the first meeting between James Madison and Old Dominion on the football field.  As mentioned above, this initial matchup will be the rebirth of the Oyster Bowl

Bringing back the Oyster Bowl is the complete (re)birth of the cool.
2011 Outlook
I expect the James Madison Dukes to win at least eight games during the regular season, and then have a successful postseason in the playoffs.  The defense returns nine players from an exceptional 2010 unit.  I cannot stress enough how tough this defense was last year, but were let down by their offense.  I saw with my own eyes how they were physically beating down UMass, only the offense couldn't stay on the field and a run-down defense gave up late touchdowns in an eventual loss.

With a defense expected to shine, the offense will determine how far the program will go in 2011.  Gone is starting QB Drew Dudzik, who was also the team's third leading rusher.  The Dukes' other top-two rushers are lost to graduation.  Five of the team's leaders in receptions return, but fans are high on true freshman Amir Waller.  Most importantly, four offensive lineman who started last year are returning in 2011; the unit is led by 2011 preseason All-CAA OL Roane Babington.  This run-focused offense will rely on the lineman to open up holes for new running backs.

It was announced during the offseason that Matthews will be taking over the play-calling duties in 2011.  Will this lead to more points?  I think it does, if only because the law of averages will dictate that the team will win more games decided by seven points or less.

Any analysis of JMU allows the opportunity to announce, Don't Cross the Moats!

I've already called this Dukes team the national title contender that is getting minimal attention.  If the Dukes could have gotten one more touchdown against either Richmond (13-10 OT loss) or W&M (30-24 loss), then the seven wins would've been enough to get into the playoffs last year.  Surely the team will get one more touchdown at a crucial juncture next season.

It's nice to have James Madison relevant in my life again.  On the one hand their basketball program has fallen off while ours has gone on to new heights.  Conversely the Dukes have had football for decades and we're just getting started.  It will be tough for Thomas DeMarco to score many points against this Dukes' defense.  As tough as the Dukes' defense will be, the offense may take a step back without its starting QB or RB from last season.  But since this game is more than ten weeks away, it's too soon to make a prediction. 

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