The Big Picture: Home Fields Advantage

It’s already a wrap on September in the Colonial Athletic Association. Autumn is officially here, but when temperatures fall, the competition in the Colonial promises to heat up. 

The first few conference offerings set the tone for a remarkable season with plenty of football still to play out. Week 5 featured dramatic finishes, dominant performances, and jaw-dropping plays, ushering out the first month in style. 

This is the Big Picture. 

Heading To A Showdown?

The two most highly ranked CAA teams made resounding statements in a thrilling Week 5. 

No. 2 James Madison and No. 8 Villanova rolled off scoring runs of 38 and 30 unanswered points, made all the more impressive that they did so against top 25-ranked CAA opponents. 

Villanova ran up a 30-3 halftime lead en route to a 33-17 win over No. 12 and defending CAA champion Maine. The Wildcats’ 5-0 start marks the program’s best since 2009. All they did that season was win the national championship. 

Perhaps it’s too early to bring up such conversations, but it is an appropriate time to note Villanova has two Walter Payton Award candidates in Daniel Smith and Justin Covington. Covington, the nation’s leading rusher, put up 118 yards on Saturday. Smith rushed for two touchdowns and passed for a third. 

Few teams anywhere in college football are playing as well as Villanova, which has back-to-back wins over top-12 competition. 

One program that can argue it’s playing at the same level is James Madison. 

The Dukes fell behind to No. 24 Elon 54 seconds into coach Curt Cignetti’s return. Davis Cheek, a player Cignetti deservedly gave rave reviews heading into the week, threw a 66-yard touchdown bomb to Avery Jones. 

The next 59 minutes belonged to James Madison. 

A whopping 336 of the Dukes’ 521 yards came on the ground. Contrast that with the outstanding James Madison defense holding Elon to just 53 yards rushing; the Dukes also ended Cheek’s remarkable streak of 240 pass attempts without an interception with a Rashad Robinson pick. 

All in all, it was another day at the office for JMU during its current four-game winning streak. 

Since losing at West Virginia in Week 1, James Madison’s average margin of victory is a staggering 36.5 points per after Saturday’s 45-10 romp. 

Oct. 12 could have titanic implications. That’s when Villanova visits Bridgeforth Stadium and James Madison. But there’s another CAA Saturday until then, and the oft-repeated mantra around the Colonial says anyone can beat everyone. 

Villanova faces William & Mary in Week 6; the Tribe beat the Wildcats in 2018. James Madison travels to one of the toughest places to play in the CAA, Stony Brook. The Seawolves are 4-1 after escaping Week 5 with one of the most incredible wins of 2019.

Fields The Flash

Following its Week 1 win, Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore complimented the versatility quarterback Tyquell Fields’ mobility gave the Seawolves offense. Stony Brook has cultivated something of a new Long Island Expressway in the weeks since with Isaiah White and Seba Nekhet, and White went for 109 yards on Saturday at Rhode Island. 

The Seawolves appear to go three deep at running back, with redshirt freshman Ty Son Lawton breaking out for 88 yards and a touchdown in Week 5. With so many ball-carrying options, Fields’ rushing is less of an emphasis. 

But when needed against Rhode Island, Fields’ wheels were critical. 

Fifty yards to the house on fourth down, and Fields gave Stony Brook the win to cap the wildest fourth quarter in college football this season. 

A 7-0 game at halftime ended the third quarter at 14-7. White’s goal-line touchdown run early into the fourth gave Stony Brook a two-touchdown lead -- which may have seemed insurmountable, given what a defensive grind the first 45 minutes were. 

But when Ahmere Dorsey ran back the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a Rhode Island touchdown, the new lights weren’t the only thing lit at Meade Stadium. 

The two teams combined for five fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a pair of dimes from Rhode Island quarterback Vito Priore to Isaiah Coulter and Aaron Parker. The latter, hauled in on a terrific play from the nation’s leading receiver Parker, came after Coulter zipped in to snag a well-placed onside kick. 

Saturday’s torrid race to the finish was enough to fill a highlight reel. And while it’s surely of no consolation to Jim Fleming’s Rams, Rhode Island has been as tough as a winless team can be. They’re 0-3 in CAA play, with losses to Delaware in triple overtime, to New Hampshire on a last-second field goal, and to Stony Brook on a broken-play, fourth-down run. 

3 Receivers, 4 Field Goals, 2 Quarterbacks, 1 Wild Game

Don’t let the madness at Meade overshadow the chaos earlier in the day at Bob Ford Field. UAlbany scored its second consecutive CAA win dating back to last season’s defeat of Stony Brook, opening this year’s conference slate with a 39-31 defeat of William & Mary. 

Quarterback Jeff Undercuffler spread the ball among a multitude of pass-catchers, including three different targets on the receiving end of touchdowns. That isn’t peculiar on its own; the identity of the Great Danes offense all season has been the quality and quantity of playmakers in the passing game. 

More out of the ordinary was kicker Dylan Burns filling in the scoring between the touchdowns with four successful field goals. Burns’ consistency provided needed stability before the UAlbany offense really got cooking, and his final made kick gave the Great Danes a lead they never relinquished. 

An Undercuffler touchdown pass to Juwan Green and a Karl Mofor touchdown run gave UAlbany breathing room — and it was needed. 

An interesting caveat to William & Mary’s offensive restructuring under Mike London and Brennan Marion has been the use of multiple quarterbacks. Three appeared on Saturday, and two delivered huge scores for the Tribe. 

Freshman Hollis Mathis broke off a 52-yard touchdown run, while Kilton Anderson hooked up with Kane Everson on a beautiful, 83-yard score in the waning minutes to give William & Mary a shot at overtime. 

There’s a well-worn cliche that says a team with two quarterbacks has no quarterbacks. However, William & Mary has seen flashes from the platoon that make this approach worthwhile. The difference in their skill sets presents defensive coordinators with a unique game-planning challenge.

As for UAlbany, the Great Danes finish September above .500, and an overtime loss shy of a perfect month against FCS competition -- including their 1-0 CAA start.

“Our big message today was that you earn confidence, and I think we’re starting to play that way,” UAlbany coach Greg Gatusso said per UAlbanySports.com. “That’s a pretty good football team over there. ... That’s a big win for us. Conference games are a battle.”

The next hurdle is carrying that confidence through October and more of those CAA battles. October has been a difficult month for the Great Danes since they joined the Colonial, with a 1-14 mark since 2015. 

UAlbany travels to Richmond in Week 6. 

Battle-Tested Blue Hens

No team experienced an emotional roller coaster like that which Delaware rode in its first month. The Fightin’ Blue Hens rallied for breathtaking wins over Rhode Island and Penn, faced the No. 1-ranked juggernaut North Dakota State, and in Week 5 took an ACC opponent to the brink.

“They truly believed that we would win the football game. We’ve been in some tight games that we had won at the end. We couldn’t quite put the formula together here today,” Delaware coach Danny Rocco said in his postgame press conference following Saturday’s 17-14 loss at Pitt.

Pitt was fresh off its own dramatic win in Week 4, handing UCF its first regular-season loss since 2016. The Fightin’ Blue Hens came into Heinz Field and gave the Panthers as much of a fight as the 2017 FBS national champions*.

Delaware’s 3-2 record heading into October belies how dangerous this team should be in the CAA race. Having faced the defending national champions and a Power Five conference opponent, the Blue Hens have had to test a defense replacing its two best players from a season ago. They’ve responded. 

Delaware has also found a spark offensively in quarterback Nolan Henderson. 

“Bottom line, he did not flinch and he’s a tough, competitive, talented young man and his best days are ahead of him,” Rocco said of Henderson. 

Earned It

Although not via kickoff return, like in Week 4, Maine wide receiver Earnest Edwards did deliver another two-touchdown performance. 

Edwards caught a 32-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Chris Ferguson, which has become SOP for the Black Bears offense. Along with his outstanding return and receiving abilities, you can add passer to Edwards’ impressive repertoire. 

He found Andre Miller on an eight-yard touchdown pass to cap Maine’s first touchdown drive of the game. 

Faster Than Faster

Perhaps the two fastest plays of the weekend belonged to Villanova wide receiver Changa Hodge and New Hampshire running back Evan Gray. Break out the stopwatches at home, if you feel so inclined. 

Hodge’s 77-yard touchdown reception set the tone early in the win over Maine. 

In his postgame press conference, interim New Hampshire coach Ricky Santos said he was pleased to see more explosive plays from the Wildcats offense. Explosive only begins to describe Gray’s 72-yard touchdown rush. 

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