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Brace yourself for a championship atmosphere when James Madison, at home for the first time since Sept. 14, hosts Villanova in a Top-5 Colonial Athletic Association showdown.
Who: No. 5 Villanova (6-0, 3-0) at No. 2 James Madison (5-1, 2-0)
When: Saturday, Oct. 12, 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bridgeforth Stadium; Harrisonburg, Virginia
Watch: LIVE on FloFootball
Bridgeforth Stadium is sold out and should be rocking in a critical matchup to the CAA title chase.
🚨SOLD OUT!🚨— James Madison Athletics (@JMUSports) October 9, 2019
Bridgeforth Stadium is going to be rocking this Saturday for @JMUFootball’s top-five matchup against Villanova!
Tickets can still be found on StubHub - the Official Fan to Fan Ticket Marketplace of the Dukes!
🎟 | https://t.co/Pyj5L3utww#GoDukes pic.twitter.com/XZUa0P4MsW
“Our guys are excited to get back home,” said Dukes coach Curt Cignetti. “It’s been a long three weeks. I was concerned the team was a little tired last week.”
After surviving one Top-25 matchup in CAA play — a 45-38, overtime classic at Stony Brook — James Madison’s return to Harrisonburg brings perhaps the No. 2 Dukes’ biggest test to date. Fifth-ranked Villanova is 6-0, matching the program’s best start in 16 years, after a 35-28 defeat of William & Mary.
The Wildcats’ start is arguably the most impressive of any team in FCS, with a resume that already includes one road win over a Top 5-ranked opponent: Towson in an OT thriller Week 4.
With a full house, an early, inside track on the CAA championship, and similar styles, the scene is set for perhaps the most exciting game on the Week 7 college football slate.
“Definitely juiced,” said Dukes running back Jawon Hamilton of the atmosphere around campus ahead of the marquee matchup. “Villanova’s a good team, so the stadium’s going to be a packed house…giving us the great energy we need.”
Elite Run Defense vs Elite Rushing Offense
The primary challenge facing both James Madison and Villanova is largely the same: How do you move the ball against one of the stingiest run defenses in college football, and how does your defense stop one of the most effective run games in the nation?
Villanova comes allowing just 89.7 rushing yards per game. Their low yield can be attributed to an all-around effort in the front seven.
“Our linebackers are playing really well right now, and our guys up front are doing a good job doing their job of keeping the linemen off linebackers, so the linebackers can make plays,” said Villanova coach Mark Ferrante.
Among those linebackers is Forrest Rhyne, the Week 6 CAA Co-Defensive Player of the Week. His ball-hawking and the all-around playmaking ability of Drew Wiley will be crucial against a James Madison rushing attack putting up 268.2 yards per game.
“Their O-line is huge, they’re experienced,” said Rhyne of James Madison. “Their quarterback [Ben DiNucci] is experienced. Their running backs – they have four [who] can play.”
Running back depth has been integral, with Solomon Vanhorse, Percy Agyei-Obese, Hamilton, and Latrele Palmer splitting the workload. Dual-threat DiNucci contributes prominently as well. And in front of those five rushers are five outstanding blockers.
“We’re winning the one-on-one battles…and we’re protecting the quarterback fairly well right now,” Cignetti said. “I think we can play better, but still, we’re improving every week.”
Villanova has its own rotation of rushers able: DeeWil Barlee was excellent in the win at William & Mary; Ferrante sang the praises of Jalen Jackson, who has dealt with some injuries but still contributed 217 yards; and TD Ayo-Durojaiye can add a change of pace.
But the focal point is Justin Covington’s FCS leading rusher at 121.2 yards per game. Covington came out of the Week 6 win after having his leg contorted, which Ferrante called a precautionary measure. No matter if it’s Covington or one of his teammates toting the rock, they’ll need to work for yards against an outstanding James Madison defense.
The Dukes rank second in FCS, holding teams to 71.2 yards per game. With Ron’Dell Carter, John Daka, Adeeb Atariwa, and Mike Greene, it’s one element to James Madison’s success — just don’t call it a strength. That applies there’s a weakness elsewhere.
“I don’t see a weakness anywhere, but to start with their front: they’re fast, they’re athletic, and they’re physical,” Ferrante said.
Avoiding Costly Errors
James Madison had opportunities to put breathing room between it and Stony Brook in Week 6, but costly fumbles removed the Dukes’ margin for error.
“That’s the No. 1 message: We’ve got to tighten up our game, the details of our assignments, and execute better,” Cignetti said following the four-turnover performance.
Although Stony Brook boasts one of the best defenses in the nation, James Madison also victimized itself with costly giveaways.
Villanova is plus-4 in turnover margin on the season, a solid number on its own. More importantly, though, the Wildcats have been adept at converting takeaways into points. Including Amos’ two pick-sixes, Villanova has cashed in 56 points off turnovers.
That’s double what Wildcats opponents have converted from turnovers, but Villanova hasn’t been immune to costly mistakes, either. Towson’s torrid comeback to lead to overtime on Sept. 21 included a Keon Paye pick-six of Dan Smith – one of the few errors Smith has made on a stellar 2019.
Coming Up In The Clutch
Perhaps the best summary of the conference title chase?
“In the CAA, you’re always going to be in a dog fight to the end,” said Ferrante.
That’s been the case for Villanova, with a pair of one-score wins in CAA play. James Madison knows it, too, needing to respond in overtime against a good Stony Brook bunch last week.
A theme from Stony Brook that Hamilton touched on after scoring two touchdowns was the “confidence” boost it provided. That extends to the Dukes’ ability to endure in a close contest.
“It should give us confidence that when we’re in close games, we are going to find a way to pull it out,” Cignetti said. “If you want to be a good team, you’ve got to be able to win those close games.”
Villanova saw Towson whittle away a two-touchdown lead late in the game, but the Wildcats responded at the most critical juncture with a field-goal drive to set up overtime. The defense then kept the CAA’s highest-scoring offense out of the end zone in the extra frame.
Last week at William & Mary, the defense again bowed up in the most critical juncture when it shut down four straight Tribe snaps at the Villanova 29-yard line to preserve the win.