After fending off at home by defeating Delaware 20-6 in the first round of the FCS playoffs, JMU football travels up north to take on the 9-1 (6-0 Patriot League) and No. 8-seeded Colgate.
In a game that’ll feature gritty defenses and determined run games, this match has the makings of a low-scoring, hard-hitting affair in the wintry winds of Hamilton, New York. Both teams will put out their best to live another day, with the winner either heading to North Dakota to take on the Bison in the Fargodome or playing the Montana State Bobcats.
1. The Raider’s sword: Replicating 2015 success
Colgate head coach Dan Hunt is no stranger to the brand of James Madison football. His 2015 season, the ninth year in program history to win nine games, was capped off with two postseason victories. The first, a 27-20 victory on the road against the CAA’s New Hampshire, led to a 44-38 win on the road against JMU that included a goal-line stand late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
Three seasons later, the script has been reversed: Hunt’s team now has the home-field advantage, hosting a hungry and determined Dukes’ squad fresh off a hard-earned CAA victory. Another difference is just how quickly JMU became a FCS powerhouse; since being knocked off by the Raiders in 2015, JMU holds an 8-1 record in the postseason with two consecutive national championship appearances.
“To be honest with you, I see a big difference in JMU on the defensive side of the football,” Hunt said. “I’m glad we just played Army, because their defense is just as good. That, to me, is going to be the biggest difference. I’m no fortune teller, but I don’t see another 44-38 score coming in the least. They’ve really established their identity.”
While the Dukes have transformed since its last bout with Colgate, the Raiders have stayed about the same — especially in how they win games. In 2015, Hunt’s group rushed for 206.4 yards per game and 4.6 yards per attempt with 36 rushing touchdowns. This year, the running back committee — headlined by senior running back James Holland Jr. — rushes for 205.8 yards a game and 4.7 yards an attempt, and has 27 rushing touchdowns.
“We’re very similar to what we were in 2015,” Hunt said. “I think our passing game is a little bit more evolved, especially when [sophomore quarterback] Grant [Breneman] is playing. Our base philosophy of being able to run the ball, play great defense and don’t beat ourselves, that hasn’t really changed.”
Colgate ran for a scorching 343 yards and got four touchdowns on the ground in the 2015 match at Bridgeforth Stadium — with 165 yard and two touchdowns coming from the then-sophomore Holland. His 63-yard touchdown rush pulled the Raiders ahead by 10 in the closing minutes of the opening half, the longest rush by Colgate since its 2013 season. Having Holland this time around with an even larger role plays to the advantage for Hunt’s unit.
“He’s gotten stronger,” Hunt said. “We have a philosophy on our offense, ‘four yards a play and you’ll never lose.’ One of the things that we look for out of our running backs is that if we block a play and get three yards, go get us four or five. If you watch him on film, the pile moves in his direction most times when he gets tackled.”
As the running backs hope for another successful game on the ground, this isn’t the 2015 JMU defense that allowed an average of 196.7 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. In the last two seasons, defensive coordinator Bob Trott has held opponents to 90.6 and 101.4 yards a game and 2.6 and 3.1 yards a rush, respectively, as the Dukes have become one of the best defenses in the nation.
The Dukes will have something to say about allowing a repetition of 2015’s disappointing loss, but Hunt’s 2018 team will stick to its guns and win they way it’s become accustomed to — by pounding the rock.
2. Houston’s headset: Creating early pressure up front
Knowing the Raiders won’t stray beyond their gameplan, JMU head coach Mike Houston needs a physical performance up front from his defense — especially at the two defensive tackle positions. Colgate likes to operate its aggressive run offense straight up the gut and between the tackles, meaning the Dukes will have to man up in the trenches.
“They’ve just got to do a great job of understanding what their role is each individual play,” Houston said. “We’ve got to remain gap sound, we’ve got to play very disciplined, we’ve got to make sure we’re on the same page at the linebacker level and the D-line level.”
JMU’s larger defensive tackle combination features sophomore Mike Green and redshirt sophomore Adeeb Atariwa, who weight 294 and 282, respectively. For JMU’s speedier packages they’ll throw in redshirt junior Paris Black — undersized at 254 pounds — but still plays a role in keeping Greene and Atariwa fresh in the rotation.
Should JMU find early success in stuffing the middle of the field with sound gap filling and effective communication, the Colgate offense will start to work its way toward some outside runs — something that coach Hunt said, “If we’re running sideways with their defense chasing us down, then that’s probably not how we want to make our living.” Not only will interior dominance cause the opposing offensive unit to adjust play calling, but it will also put the Dukes in prime position to expose an area of Colgate’s offense that is rather underwhelming: third-down conversion percentage.
Hunt’s offense converts just 37.3 percent of its third-down attempts, which ranks 60th in the FCS. JMU’s defense has been stout on third down all year, allowing conversions on just 29.5 percent of attempts, and held Delaware to a 2-of-14 showing last week.
“That’s what you hope you can do,” Houston said. “You win first down, you win second down and get them into a third-and-long situation, and that’s outside of what their norm is. If you sit there with third-and-one all day, they’re going to have a great day. That third-down conversion rate depends on what that third down is.”
When playing a run-heavy offense, effective first and second down stops play a vital role in third-down defense. If Colgate can’t effectively run up the middle, something it’s found success doing all year long, the Raiders will be forced outside of their comfort zone and put in dangerous third-and-long situations from start to finish.
3. Player’s perspective: Unfazed by the environment
JMU players are ready to hit the road in the postseason for the first time since traveling to the Fargodome back in the 2016 playoffs. The Dukes still find themselves as favorites despite playing in enemy territory, but for a relatively young team, JMU is heading into uncharted territory.
“You could even consider me a young guy at this point because I haven’t even been on the road in the playoffs before,” redshirt junior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter said. “It’s going to be a different atmosphere, a hostile environment. So, just explaining to the young guys that this week we’ve got to prepare extra hard.”
While December football in Harrisonburg is no joke, heading to the center of New York with freezing temperatures and snow adds another aspect to this week’s atmosphere. The players, however, aren’t too worried about the cold weather or snow on the field — they’re excited for it.
“I’d rather be in the cold, you really get to see who wants to play football,” senior running back Trai Sharp said. “It’s easy to be running around and hitting people in 80, 85-degree weather. With the cold, you really get to see who the men are.
Colgate may have the upper-hand in in terms of comfort in the environment, but the Dukes will try to step on the field as the bigger men.
4. Blake’s take: A low-scoring, hard-earned JMU victory
It’s easy to underestimate Colgate’s 2018 team — one that hasn’t won a game against a team that finished with a winning record and one that’s offense had only three games with 200 passing yards. To some degree heading into the postseason, I had thought Colgate may have been overseeded.
This team reminds me of a CAA program that happens to play in the Patriot League. It wins its games with a smart coaching staff, dominant run game and stout defense. It isn’t flashy like the Big 12, more like a lesser version of the SEC. Both teams will have to earn every play this Saturday, and the winning team will most likely limp to its flight to the Fargodome.
In the end, this could be a huge playoff moment for JMU redshirt junior quarterback Ben DiNucci — especially if the Dukes’ run game stalls early. With the always-trusty redshirt junior wide receiver Riley Stapleton and the emergence of redshirt sophomore Jake Brown and redshirt freshman Kyndel Dean, the passing game will have its chance to take a few deep shots and spread out the Colgate secondary.
This won’t be as high-scoring as the 2015 bout, and JMU probably still won’t put many points on the board. But by the end of the day, JMU will move on to face North Dakota State after besting the Raiders, 24-13.
Contact Blake Pace at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.