JMU football took care of business at home, fending of Delaware in a 20-6 victory to get past the first round of the FCS. Now, as the Dukes hit the road, hear from sports editors Blake Pace and Catie Harper, former sports editors Matt Weyrich and Kevin Haswell and sportswriter Noah Ziegler as they discuss the Dukes’ focus heading into the matchup, the legitimacy of Colgate and a game prediction for this Saturday.
What are potential ramifications for the team this weekend following the rumors that head coach Mike Houston is leaving for an FBS position?
Blake Pace: It was extremely unfortunate that JMU players and coaches alike had to be presented with a situation as such in the midst of their postseason. There was definitely zero intention for Houston to let this news break in the middle of the week, but in the age of social media and the need for journalists to be the first to report led to the breaking news Wednesday afternoon. However, Houston gave the response he should’ve and the team should be completely focus to the task at hand. It’ll be interesting to see if the Dukes start of Saturday sluggish or uninterested because of these reports.
Catie Harper: Yes, it’s going to be hard for the JMU players to hear all of these rumors right before one of the biggest games of the season. I do think there’s a chance that all of the rumors impact how the team performs this weekend. The news of Houston’s potential departure, however, won’t be what makes or breaks this team. JMU will still come out focused on the game at hand and play the way it’s been coached to play all season. The Dukes’ mentality all season has been to focus on the game at hand, and I think, for the most part, that’s what they’ll do. Fans all season have been looking ahead at potential matchups or a trip back to Frisco, while the team focused only on the week it was in. This weekend the focus will be on Colgate, and if JMU wins its focus will be on the next game.
Matt Weyrich: It’s impossible to predict what kind of effect these rumors are going to have on the team this weekend. Houston maintained that his focus is on the game against Colgate, and he has a strong history of keeping his players focused and on board with his messages. However, the threat of him leaving could make some of the underclassmen — especially those who weren’t on the Dukes’ previous championship team — weary about putting their faith in him. It’s all only speculation at this point, and we really won’t know the answer until JMU takes the field Saturday afternoon.
Kevin Haswell: It’s going to be all about tunnel vision for JMU this week, blocking out all of the outside noise. The only thing that players should be worried about is getting a win at Colgate and advancing to play another week. Once the season is officially over, players can start to worry about whether Houston is going to be here another year.
Noah Ziegler: There’s a lot of opinions regarding the Mike Houston news that broke yesterday. Anyone who follows JMU knows Houston would never want this type of thing to get out during a playoff run. Not only would it be a distraction to his players, but he also respects the job he currently has and will honor that until a decision is made. That being said, this isn’t the first time it’s happened in the world of sports. The players know that, but it still can have an effect on the game Saturday. What’s important is that Houston is being honest with his team and fans. If there’s one thing that Houston will do, it’s that he’ll get his team ready to play Colgate. It’s up to the players to continue their playoff journey and not fall apart because of the reports.
What was your biggest positive and negative takeaway from JMU vs. Delaware?
Blake: My biggest positive takeaway from JMU’s win was watching my biggest concern a week ago — the No. 2 cornerback position — almost disappear. Redshirt junior Charles Tutt has really come into his own the last few weeks, and came down with his first career interception against Delaware. He’s been aggressive and all over receivers. Delaware and Colgate aren’t necessarily huge threats through the air, the real test coming with the potential matchup of JMU vs. NDSU, but it was the right step for a secondary I had initial concerns about.
On the flip side, my biggest negative takeaway would be the Dukes are struggling to find the right times to use their weapons offensively. Running backs can be extremely dependent on getting into a good rhythm and, when you have a number of starting-caliber backs, it can be difficult to measure snap count on a week-to-week basis. Additionally, the last month or so has really seen a decline in the using of redshirt junior wideout Riley Stapleton. Since the Dukes’ disaster of a game in New Hampshire, JMU has only found him 10 times for 96 yards and two scores. Through the UNH game, JMU quarterbacks had found Stapleton 51 times for 609 yards and five touchdowns. Colgate’s defense is one of the best in the nation, so the offense will need to get in a groove early on to be able to put points on the board.
Catie: My biggest positive takeaway was that the defensive unit is strong — especially upfront. JMU gave up only 69 yards on the ground against Delaware, which was the seventh time this season that the Dukes held their opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing. Heading into this weekend, JMU’s rush defense has to be strong against Colgate redshirt senior running back James Holland Jr. The last time the Dukes faced Colgate, Holland rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns. JMU needs to limit him, and if the defense plays like it did against Delaware, then there shouldn’t be an issue.
On the negative side of things, the biggest takeaway I got from the game was what I was skeptical about last week — the offense. JMU’s offense had two great weeks against Rhode Island and Towson, but hit somewhat of a wall against Delaware. The Dukes struggled in the run game, posting only 93 yards and relied mainly on their passing. At least for the offense, redshirt junior quarterback Ben DiNucci had a strong day throwing the ball and showed there weren’t many nerves playing in his first playoff game. However, with a matchup against Colgate, which has a strong defense, JMU’s offense needs to be more than just passing. The run game needs to get going and it needs to start early if the Dukes want to see the next round of the postseason.
Matt: When a defense allows just six points in a playoff game against a conference opponent, it’s in pretty good shape heading into the rest of the postseason. The Dukes racked up 10 tackles for a loss, five sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a safety on Saturday, forcing the Blue Hens to go three and out on each of their first six possessions before finally getting a first down in the final minutes of the second quarter. If JMU’s defensive unit has a showing of similar fashion against Colgate and its 30.1 points per game, the Dukes will have no problem picking up the road victory.
The biggest disappointment from JMU’s point of view has to be the performance of the running game, which totaled just 93 yards on 46 attempts — with 29 of those yards coming from redshirt junior quarterback Ben DiNucci. The return of senior running back Marcus Marshall from a three-game absence due to injury was unspectacular, although the former Georgia State tailback did find the end zone for the team’s lone rushing touchdown. For an extended postseason run, JMU needs its running backs corps to find a groove and open up the passing lanes for DiNucci.
Kevin: The play of the running backs was my biggest takeaway from JMU’s win over Delaware. The Dukes were only able to compiled 93 yards of rushing on 43 carries, an average 2.0 yards per carry. The Dukes most reliable rusher against the Blue Hens was senior Trai Sharp, who was only able to manage 42 yards on 12 carries, good for just 3.5 yards per carry. Looking forward to Colgate this week, the Dukes are going to have to figure out to how to get the run game going to set up junior quarterback Ben DiNucci for success.
Noah: The obvious positive takeaway from JMU’s 20-6 win over Delaware is that it won. Another positive is how the defense shut down Delaware’s offense. Yes, the Blue Hens’ offense struggled toward the end of the season, but they still put up 40 against Towson, 38 against UNH and 43 against Richmond. The Dukes held them to 185 total yards on offense and forced Delaware to go 2-for-14 on third downs. Sophomore punter Harry O’Kelly also had four of his six punts land inside the 20.
Although DiNucci was able to get the offense going, the running backs had less than stellar performances. Seniors Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp averaged 3.1 and 3.5 yards per rush, respectively. Colgate has the No. 1 defense in the FCS, and if JMU wants to get past the Raiders, it’ll have to get things going on the ground.
Is Colgate a legit team or a product of an easy schedule of lesser opponents?
Blake: I severely underrated Colgate’s team in my original analysis of their roster, schedule and results. Yes, the Raiders haven’t beaten a team this year that finished with a winning record, but it’s unheard of when a defense holds opponents to under six points a game. Moreso, that number was shorter before a nationally ranked FBS program in Army put up 28 on them at the end of the season. Head coach Dan Hunt has done a tremendous job with this program, it reminds me of a CAA team that doesn’t play in the conference. Colgate is a legit team and should stand as a talk task for JMU this weekend.
Catie: I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t a big believer in Colgate being a good team. I looked at the schedule the Raiders had and was fairly underwhelmed. However, Colgate played a good Army team and didn’t suffer a big blowout. On top of that, when it comes to its FCS schedule — even with the Patriot League not being as strong as the CAA — Colgate only gave up only 32 points to its opponents this season. Yes, Colgate didn’t have the hardest schedule, but this is still a good football team.
Matt: The questions surrounding the strength of Colgate’s schedule are legitimate, but the Raiders shouldn’t be underestimated playing on their home turf. Colgate is 16-7 at Andy Kerr Stadium since the start of the 2014 season, including a mark of 4-0 in 2018. In fact, Colgate outscored its opponents by a combined 121 points in those four home games. On the road, it boasted a margin of +123 but took six contests to do it. The Raiders won’t go quietly and it would be a mistake for JMU to look past them in anticipation of a rematch with North Dakota State in the quarterfinals.
Kevin: Before Colgate’s last game of the season against Army, I would have said that Colgate’s record was only because of the easiness of their schedule. But after playing an FBS Army extremely close, a team that was in the AP Top 25, I have changed my mind on just how good Colgate is. While they didn’t play a team with a .500 or better record going into that game, they proved themselves against a talented Army bunch. Colgate is a lot better than its strength of schedule indicates.
Noah: Colgate had a very easy regular season schedule because the Patriot League isn’t quite the same as the CAA. Early in the season, the Raiders beat an injury-riddled New Hampshire team 10-3 and coasted from there. They capped the season by playing Army and while they lost 28-14, that’s not a bad result against a team that took Oklahoma to overtime. Colgate had an easy schedule, but shouldn’t be written off based on how they played against Army.
What’s your prediction for JMU vs. Colgate?
Blake: This game has the making of being a 6-3 contest going into the half. Both teams will have to earn every yard in a grueling contest, and I think both defenses will shut down to opponent’s rush attack. In the second half, however, I see JMU opening its passing attack and really flourishing against the Colgate back seven. JMU wins and moves on to the national quarterfinals, 24-13.
Catie: Much like last week against Delaware, I think the JMU defense shows up and holds strong against a good Colgate offense. While the defense remains stout, I expect the offense to get its footing back a little this week and contribute more on the run game as well. When the game comes to the close, JMU will be heading to its third-straight quarterfinals appearance with a 24-10 victory.
Matt: Despite all the distractions and potential for a trap game, there’s a reason the Dukes are favored on the road against a higher-seeded team. JMU has too much talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, to let Colgate stand in its way of advancing in the tournament. The Raiders will keep things tight early, but halftime adjustments will lead to a lopsided 31-7 victory for JMU.
Kevin: This game sets itself up to be a defensive battle. Colgate is leading the FCS in scoring defense, giving up just 5.7 points per game. JMU rivals them in that category, giving up just 13.9 points per game, good for sixth in the FCS. As Blake said earlier, I could see a very low scoring game at the half, but both teams will adjust for a higher scoring second half. I got JMU coming out on top in a close, defensive battle, 20-17.
Noah: Unlike the playoff game in 2015 where Colgate came to Harrisonburg and beat JMU, the pressure is on Colgate. The Raiders are a seeded team and some believe JMU should’ve been seeded instead of Colgate. Its defense is good, but so is JMU’s. I think the Dukes go to New York and come away with a 16-14 win.
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