The Big Picture: CAA Road Warriors Upend Pecking Order

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Look at Colonial Athletic Association results from the end of the day Sept. 14, at the conclusion of Week 3. Compare it to a month later, Oct. 14, through Week 7. 

Week 7 may have provided the quintessential example of Colonial depth, with three road teams winning five conference games and three unranked squads knocking off Top 25 opponents to turn the landscape on its head. 

All but two CAA team heads into the back-half of 2019 carrying at least one league loss. While little in the Colonial proves predictable, the preseason favorite to win the crown protected its castle in the FCS game of the week. 

James Madison is a clear front-runner, but so much more continues to unfold in the Big Picture. 

Dangerous Dukes

No. 2-ranked James Madison’s showdown with previously undefeated and No. 5-ranked Villanova met expectations. The two top-rated CAA teams exchanged shots for three quarters, with Villanova’s outstanding defense keeping James Madison at arm’s length until the Wildcats offense could break through. Wildcats linebacker Forrest Rhyne was excellent again, racking up 13 tackles with three for loss and two sacks. 

Playing without FCS-leading ball-carrier Justin Covington, coupled with the Dukes' stellar rush defense, hamstrung Villanova’s offense for much of the first half. But Dan Smith passed for two of his three touchdowns in the third quarter to give the visitors a 24-17 lead, and with 387 total passing yards against one of the nation’s premier defenses, Smith bolstered his Walter Payton Award case. 

The Dukes also got to three Smith passes for interceptions, though, including an 83-yard M.J. Hampton pick-six that was one in a trio of game-changing, fourth-quarter scores. 

In the final 15 minutes, trailing by a touchdown, James Madison demonstrated the full capacity of its championship chops. Basketball analyst Clark Kellogg introduced the now-universally accepted term “spurtability” to describe teams capable of frequent scoring runs. The Dukes embody the same idea on the gridiron. 

Book-ending Hampton’s touchdown return were explosive-play touchdowns of 26 yards on Ben DiNucci’s scoring touchdown pass of the day and a 69-yard end-zone run from Latrele Palmer.

Palmer’s touchdown carry underscores a defining trait of this offense: An opposing defense might be able to bottle up Percy Agyei-Obese, who finished with 41 yards against Villanova, or Solomon Vanhorse, who had nine yards on Saturday, or even Jawon Hamilton, who finished with three. But an opponent’s likelihood of stopping all four is low. Make it a quintet with DiNucci -- one of five Dukes with at least 248 net rushing yards on the season -- and a breakout is almost inevitable. 

It certainly helps when DiNucci is dealing in the passing game, and the veteran quarterback is playing the best football of his career. His completion percentage through seven games is over 70, with 11 touchdowns against just two interceptions. 

DiNucci spread the ball among seven pass-catchers against Villanova, including Vanhorse, whose versatility shined on a day he was stymied in the run game, and Riley Stapleton, who caught his first two touchdowns of the season. 

When it comes to spreading production, the defense excels in that facet, too. Three different Dukes accounted for each interception, with one for Rashad Robinson and one for Adam Smith. If anyone on James Madison’s stellar defense is gobbling up all the individual stats, it’s John Daka. 

Daka is one of a few elite CAA defenders building an impressive portfolio for the Buck Buchanan Award. His ledger in Week 7: a team-high nine tackles, noteworthy coming from the defensive end spot; five tackles for loss; two sacks; a quarterback hurry; a broken-up pass; and a forced fumble. 

No word if he also sold concessions and took tickets, but Daka certainly did everything else. 

Road Warriors, Part 1: Caught In A Spider Web

Three road victors in Week 7’s Colonial competition dramatically shook up the conference. Saturday began with Richmond knocking off defending CAA champion Maine in Orono, 24-17. 

The win is Richmond’s second straight in the CAA, and about as close to perfect football as a team can play with no turnovers and no penalties. 

“We had no penalties?” Spiders coach Russ Huesman responded incredulously when informed in his postgame interview. “Well, that’s why we won the game: no turnovers and no penalties.” 

Having Maurice Jackson certainly helps, too. One week after he was a one-man wrecking crew in the defeat of UAlbany, Jackson again made a statement as to why he should be a leading contender for the Buck Buchanan Award: seven tackles, 2.5 for loss and two sacks, and a hurry that set the table for Daniel Jones’ game-winning interception. 

Jackson may have also inadvertently created a new dance. 

Richmond’s win was a total defensive effort, and big man Jackson may not even be the Spiders’ leader for Player of the Week awards. Tyler Dressler made a staggering 20 tackles, as well. 

Road Warriors, Part 2: Dogs Will Hunt

How’s this for conference depth? UAlbany, picked to finish last-place in the preseason CAA media poll, improved to 2-1 with its 38-21 over No. 9-ranked Towson. 

Although the Tigers came into competition with the reigning and preseason CAA Offensive Player of the Year, Tom Flacco, UAlbany quarterback Jeff Undercuffler stole the show with 380 yards on 23-of-30 passing with a pair of touchdowns. 

“The difference between this year and last year is striking,” Great Danes coach Greg Gattuso said per UAlbanySports.com “We’re really proud of our progress.”

As they should be. UAlbany has already surpassed its overall and CAA win totals of a season ago, matched its marks from 2017, and could realistically factor into the hunt for an FCS Playoffs berth. The Great Danes have not made the postseason since moving to the Colonial from the Northeast Conference in 2013. 

The offense is flourishing, with Saturday showing the best in the passing game -- standout wide receiver duo Jerah Reeves and Juwan Green combined for 299 yards -- and the run game behind Karl Mofor’s 120 yards. But the Great Danes' defense held Towson 31 points below UAlbany’s yield to the Tigers a season ago, paced by another excellent Eli Mencer performance of 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and a quarterback hurry. 

Road Warriors, Part 3: A New Contender Emerges

A new contender in the CAA championship race is also one of the most familiar.

New Hampshire was a fixture in the FCS Playoffs before the 2018 season, but an uncharacteristic slip-up and legendary coach Sean McDonnell having to step aside for 2019 shrouded the new year in some uncertainty.

With a 20-14 win at No. 22-ranked Stony Brook, however, new New Hampshire resembles old New Hampshire: physical, defensively imposing, methodical.

The Wildcats focused a defensive attack that gave up rushing yards before the Seawolves reached scoring range, but denied the explosive plays that have been quarterback Tyquell Fields’ signature on a standout season.

The approach worked, as Fields only completed 12 passes and Evan Horn got to one attempt for an interception.

Under interim Ricky Santos, these ‘Cats are also clutch: Max Brosmer’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Brian Espanet and a 42-yard Jason Hughes field goal came with 9:32 and 5:07 remaining to seal the win. It marks New Hampshire’s second fourth-quarter win in CAA play. 

With four straight wins, three coming in the CAA, New Hampshire joins James Madison as the Colonial’s sole undefeateds. 

Rising Phoenix

A three-game losing streak to FBS-ranked Wake Forest, James Madison, and New Hampshire saw Elon’s hopes of a third straight poseason take a hit. With just 27 points in those three contests, an Elon offense that had been clicking in a 2-1 start went cold. 

But in Week 7, the Phoenix lived up to their nickname. Both their aspirations of the Playoffs and their offensive production rose from the proverbial ashes in a 42-7 romp over No. 15-ranked Delaware. 

Elon checked off plenty more boxes. Greg Liggs Jr. returned an interception for a touchdown, one week removed from securing three picks against New Hampshire. Davis Cheek completed a remarkable 22-of-25 pass attempts, and three Phoenix rushed for touchdowns -- including a career-first for Joey Baughman. 

If the Phoenix can get hot down the stretch, they could realistically sit at 6-4 coming off a bye week in the season finale vs Towson. And they’re one among virtually 12 CAA teams still alive for the Playoffs.

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