The Big Picture: Stage Set For JMU, 'Nova After Both Survive Scares

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Evening kickoffs in the Colonial Athletic Association this season have proven to deliver especially raucous contests.

Delaware beat Rhode Island in a wild, back-and-forth, triple-overtime contest Week 2, Villanova took down Towson in overtime in a Week 4 shootout, and Tyquell Fields’ 50-yard scramble on fourth-and-6 a week ago elevated Stony Brook to a memorable win over Rhode Island.

When the lights came on in Week 6, the magic set in once again.

The FBS has #Pac12AfterDark, the social media shoutout for nighttime shenanigans in that conference. The way the Colonial is trending in 2019, it might be time for its own hashtag. #NightCAAp?

The Big Picture will continue to workshop this.

Escape From New York

The Colonial’s Week 6 nighttime dose of heart-stopping football came courtesy of the Top 25 matchup between mirror-image opponents, James Madison and Stony Brook.

The No. 2 Dukes survived in overtime, 45-38, doing what they do: They rushed for 329 yards, they sacked quarterback Tyquell Fields five times, they were excellent on third downs (11-of-16), and they capitalized on red-zone opportunities (4-of-5).

Even so, No. 24-ranked Stony Brook gave James Madison more than it could handle in just 60 minutes.

Creating four turnovers turned into 21 points, including one huge fourth-quarter swing. James Madison drove deep into Seawolves with the prospect of going ahead three scores. But a fumble at the three-yard line set the stage for a 97-yard drive, capped on Ty Son Lawton’s third rushing touchdown of the night.

A forced punt later, and Stony Brook faced a redux of last week’s thrilling win at Rhode Island. Fields came through on a critical fourth-down again, this time a 14-to-go pass thrown beautifully to wide receiver Jean Constant.

Another big pass of 21 yards to Peter McKenzie, a rush up to the line for the spike, and Nick Courtney’s career-long, 46-yard field goal later, and it was onto extra frames.

Fields wowed with his legs in Week 5, but in Week 6 he was on point as a passer: 318 yards on 15 completions with two touchdowns.

The last two weeks have established Fields is unflappable under pressure, too. To that end, he almost delivered yet another jaw-dropping fourth-down score when, in overtime, he uncorked a beautiful pass on fourth-and-18 that barely slipped through the hands of Delante Hellams.

On the flipside, this week demonstrated James Madison’s resolve in the face of a tough situation. The Dukes had not previously been tested against FCS competition. But despite some unfortunate bounces, manifesting in four turnovers, they came through in big spots -- like Landan Word’s sack of Fields to force the long fourth down in overtime. John Daka made a similar play on the Seawolves’ final drive in regulation to set up that fourth down.

And despite the four turnovers, the Dukes put 45 points on one of the best defenses in FCS. The Seawolves allowed 444 rushing yards total in the five games leading up to Saturday’s matchup. The Dukes’ five rushing touchdowns -- two apiece from Jawon Hamilton (including the game-winner) and Percy Agyei-Obese, as well as one from Ben DiNucci -- matched Stony Brook’s season-long yield.

Simply put, James Madison took a shot on the chin and responded with championship resolve. It won’t be the last time the Dukes will have to answer that bell if they are to reach Frisco -- and next week might be the next such occasion.

Villanova Survives, But William & Mary Looks Dangerous

Week 6 provided two quintessential examples of CAA depth, with both of the conference’s Top 5-ranked teams going down to the wire.

William & Mary withstood a 21-0 barrage from No. 5-ranked Villanova to set up a second-half tug-of-war. Nation-leading rusher Justin Covington got into the end zone but was held to just 53 yards rushing. Change-of-pace back DeeWil Barlee stepped up, scoring a pair of touchdowns, including the game-winner.

His goal-line grab from Dan Smith and the Villanova defense forcing three straight incompletions on William & Mary’s final possession sealed a 35-28 Wildcats win. Villanova’s 6-0 start is the program’s best since 2003, and a showdown at James Madison next week looms.

But in taking the Wildcats to the brink, William & Mary made its own statement.

“That’s the best team in the CAA. The CAA’s the best conference in FCS,” Tribe coach Mike London said of Villanova. “I told the guys, if they’re among the best, the way [William & Mary] played tonight, we can consider ourselves a good football team, as well.”

William & Mary fell to 0-2 in CAA play with the loss, but the Tribe’s 28 and 31 points in defeats to Villanova and UAlbany are both higher than they scored in any Colonial contest last year.

Coordinator Brennan Marion’s creativity in the Go-Go offense seems to be a fit, and Saturday showed off a new wrinkle. London talked during the week of getting freshman playmaker Bronson Yoder more opportunities “with the ball in his hands.” On special teams, Yoder scored two touchdowns via kickoff return coming into Week 6.

While London was noncommittal when asked about seeing Yoder on offense, the answer came when Yoder lined up in the Wildcat and rushed for a Tribe touchdown. Yoder also completed a pass, though Kilton Anderson manned quarterback duties for the duration for the first time this season. He threw three touchdowns with no interceptions.

'Cats Catching Fire

It’s fair to say no team in the CAA started the season with quite as much adversity as New Hampshire faced. Future Hall of Fame coach Sean McDonnell had to step away for health reasons just a week before the season opener, and the Wildcats dropped their first two games.

Since then, however, New Hampshire is a winner of three straight, including two in the CAA.

With Saturday’s 26-10 win over Elon, the Wildcats have held four FCS opponents to a combined 53 points. Getting a touchdown from the defense certainly helps to that end, and Oleh Manzyk delivered with a first-quarter pick-six that helped New Hampshire hold the Phoenix at bay for the duration.

“We’re taking strides,” Wildcats interim coach Ricky Santos said in his postgame press conference, though he added: “We’ve got to take care of the ball better.”

Elon defensive back Greg Liggs Jr. picked off three passes, which contributed to Santos’ decision to commit to the run more in the second half. Coupled with New Hampshire’s defensive dominance -- which resulted in just 267 total yards yielded and 3.9 yards per play -- going to running backs Evan Gray and Carlos Washington Jr. was the right call.

New Hampshire is now one of only four CAA teams undefeated in conference competition heading into Week 7, joining Delaware, James Madison, and Villanova.

Defensive Dynamos

Liggs’ three-interception performance at New Hampshire will have the Elon defensive back in contention for national Defensive Player of the Week. However, he’ll have competition from within the CAA: Richmond defensive end Maurice Jackson padded his Buck Buchanan Award portfolio with an eye-popping, all-around showing against UAlbany.

Jackson finished with six tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, a forced fumble, and an interception. His pick of UAlbany quarterback Jeff Undercuffler made Jackson look more like a defensive back than a defensive end -- perhaps a call-back to his high school days, when he played a linebacker/safety position.

“I saw the play unfolding a little bit. Just looking at the inside guys, releasing. I saw the back coming inside,” Jackson said in the postgame press conference. “Any decent D-lineman can read that.”

Maybe any decent defensive lineman can read the play; few can make the grab Jackson pulled off, which proved critical in a game that came down to a single field goal.

Getting Into the Win Column

Richmond’s 23-20 defeat of UAlbany was big for the Spiders, who had not won since routing Jacksonville on Aug. 29. In addition to Jackson demonstrating once again why he’s an All-America caliber performer, quarterback Beau English settled in after making his first start a week prior at Fordham. English threw for a touchdown and rushed for another.

Richmond now sits at 1-1 in the CAA.

Rhode Island will not get a chance to break through in the Colonial until Week 8 when it faces UAlbany, but the Rams were able to pick up their first win of 2019 -- and a trophy, to boot.

After losses in triple overtime to Delaware, on a last-second field goal at New Hampshire, and on a fourth-down, 50-yard touchdown scamper to Stony Brook, late-game heroics finally went Rhode Island’s way against rival Brown.

Vito Priore found Aaron Parker for a 14-yard touchdown with less than six minutes remaining, giving Rhody a 31-28 lead. The defense preserved the edge, forcing a turnover on downs on Brown’s ensuing possession.

Parker was the hero not only with his touchdown grab -- his second of the game and sixth on the season -- but also in an unlikely capacity as a ball-carrier. He picked up eight yards on a third-down rush that converted a Rams first down, denying Brown a final possession.

Parker came into Saturday’s Governor’s Cup rivalry leading the nation in receiving, and was again electric. But the continued emergence of Isaiah Coulter, who was excellent against Stony Brook and posted 171 yards vs Brown, gives Rhode Island one of the most formidable combinations in the country.

Add Ahmere Dorsey to that equation, who logged six receptions for 94 yards against Brown, and the depth of the Rams receiving corps rivals the best in FCS.

And speaking of rivals, the win gave Rhode Island the Governor’s Cup for the third time in four years. The rivalry dates back to 1909, but the Rams did not have a comparable 3-of-4 run until 1952 to 1955.

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URI, UAlbany Deploy Big Time Weapons At Wide Receiver

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You won’t find a better collection of receivers in a Colonial Athletic Association game than the ones who will be on the field when Rhode Island plays at UAlbany on Saturday.