The Big Picture: JMU Is Peaking At The Perfect Time

HIGHLIGHTS: New Hampshire vs JMU

College football plays the shortest season of any major sport. And yet, one can reasonably posit no other game sees teams evolve as profoundly, or fade from attrition, quite as profoundly in three months. 

The hope of any program is to be playing better ball around the time folks are putting together their Thanksgiving menus than they were at the time of Labor Day cookouts. 

Parity and attrition both have defined the Colonial Athletic Association’s 2019. Still, some of the Colonial’s squads are nearing their peaks with just two weeks remaining in the regular season. 

Unfinished Business

Curt Cignetti was not at James Madison a season ago when the Dukes fell short of winning the CAA championship and suffered a disappointing exit from the FCS Playoff. All the same, he knew the mindset those misfires instilled in James Madison’s veteran roster. 

“Everybody’s attitude is there’s a lot of unfinished business there down the road,” Cignetti said following the Dukes’ 54-16 rout of New Hampshire. “This was just the next one.” 

A team doesn’t win eight consecutive games, as James Madison had ahead of Saturday’s romp, without looking impressive. But in Week 11, the Dukes’ showing can be best described as jaw-dropping. 

They locked in after trailing in the first quarter to hold New Hampshire to 16 second-quarter yards. That dictated the tenor of the entire game, and just might be the signature performance of a defense making a strong case as the nation’s best. 

“We’re all getting more comfortable with each other,” defensive back Adam Smith said in the postgame press conference. “The defensive line’s obviously getting pressure, forcing the quarterback to make some bad decisions.” 

Stifling the offense on one end wears down the defense on the other, and James Madison did exactly that. Cignetti said New Hampshire’s defense seemed to tire as the game progressed. Percy Agyei-Obese’s 130 yards and three touchdowns gave his run at the record books a nice boost. 

The entirety of the stat line suggest James Madison only got better as it went along, a fitting reflection of how the Dukes’ entire season has gone. 

James Madison already boasted wins over Villanova and Towson teams currently ranked in the Top 25 coming into Week 11, but Saturday’s outcome might be the biggest statement for the Dukes yet. New Hampshire may have been just No. 23 in the FCS STATS Poll, but the NCAA Div. I Championship Committee tabbed the Wildcats No. 10 in its playoff reveal earlier in the week. 

One more win guarantees James Madison an outright CAA title, but one can safely assume the Dukes want to win out for a perfect conference slate and presumably home-field advantage all the way to Frisco. 

Black Hole Back 

Although it will not repeat as CAA champion, Maine has played near a championship level on the back-half of its slate. Saturday’s 31-17 win at Elon marked the Black Bears’ third straight, resurrecting their postseason hopes like Jason Voorhees. 

In that run, Maine’s averaged more than 37 points per game. Quarterback Joe Fagnano is a sensation and might be a Jerry Rice Award front-runner if he moved into the starting lineup earlier in the season. 

However, the Blacks Bears defensive play of late could be the key to getting Maine back into the Playoffs. 

Last year’s CAA championship and historic semifinal run were results of the aggressive Black Hole Defense. Giving up 45 to Towson and 33 to Villanova in the first half of the season, the 2019 team’s prospects of replicating 2018 were bleak. 

In recent weeks, though, the Black Hole’s returned in a big way. 

Kayon Whitaker has stepped up in this critical stretch and now ranks third in the CAA for sacks. 

Tiger Beat 

The CAA may not have a more fitting reflection of both in-season attrition and evolution than Towson. 

Coach Rob Ambrose has repeated his admiration for the 2019 Tigers’ resilience against a bevy of devastating injuries. After a 31-14 win at Stony Brook, that resilience has Towson in prime position for a return to the Playoffs. 

Its place is hardly guaranteed, but Towson’s played its way into a favorable spot. Win the final two, and the Tigers have a four-game winning streak heading into Selection Sunday; eight wins overall; and a strong case for a home game in at least the Round of 16. 

Tom Flacco worked his usual magic against an excellent Stony Brook defense on Saturday, dropping dimes all over LaValle Stadium…

But the dual-threat quarterback finished on the negative side rushing. In the weeks immediately following Shane Simpson’s season-ending knee injury, that stat would have spelled disaster for the Tigers. 

Against the CAA’s No. 2 rushing defense, however, Adrian Feliz-Platt and Yeedee Thaenrat ripped off 6.8 and 4.9 yards per game. Shane Leatherbury contributed to the run game, and Towson’s offense as a whole looks to be striking its right balance just in time for this playoff push. 

With another couple of picks by linebacker Keon Paye… 

He and Coby Tippett head into this critical, last couple weeks with an opportunity to add to what’s already been a historic season. 

A Game Of Runs 

Villanova’s 35-28 defeat of Richmond could not have started any more fittingly than with Nowoola Awopetu going 100 yards for a kick-return touchdown. 

For one thing, Awopetu’s jaunt to the end zone marked Villanova’s first since Angelo Babbaro in the FCS semifinals during the 2010 season. Babbaro played a key role on the 2009 national championship team, which was in the house celebrating that anniversary on Saturday. 

Secondly, Awopetu delivered the first haymaker in a game that played out like a 60-minute highlight reel. Both sides performed like their postseason fate hinged on the result — because it did. 

A Villanova win likely assured this squad, battling through injuries on an already-thin roster and a losing skid, its place among the field of 24. 

A Richmond win kept the Spiders in the conversation for the final two weeks; a loss may have sank their prospects of the postseason. 

One gets the sense watching that if they had played all the way into Week 12, the score would still be tied. But at the end of 60 minutes, Villanova came out on top thanks to a fourth-quarter rally. 

Dan Smith and TD Ayo-Durojaiye scored the two decisive touchdowns. On the latter, Ayo-Durojaiye may have quietly forecast the 20-yard run a week earlier with a tweet. He certainly went Super Saiyan on his way to a likely playoff-sealing score. 

Joe Mancuso was electric for Richmond in the loss with two passing touchdowns and two rushing scores. 

For a snapshot of just how competitive and entertaining the CAA has been in 2019, there are few better options than this one. 

Great Danes Making Their Case  

With a three-touchdown performance — two to Juwan Green and a game-winner to Jerah Reeves — freshman quarterback Jeff Undercuffler helped ensure UAlbany can finish no worse than .500 both overall and in the CAA for the first time since 2016. 

As that 7-4 season sans playoff invitation proved, however, nothing’s guaranteed on Selection Sunday. 

The 2016 snub looms large for the 6-4 Great Danes heading into the final two games. They play New Hampshire at home next week, then travel to rival Stony Brook to close it out with the Battle for the Apple. 

Like UAlbany, the Wildcats and Seawolves will both be playing for their playoff lives. In essence, the postseason begins now. While an 8-4 final record almost guarantees UAlbany a spot, the Great Danes’ resume for selection committee purposes is worth examining. 

They took Monmouth to overtime in Week 3. The Hawks’ emphatic win over Kennesaw State puts them in the driver’s seat for the Big South Conference’s automatic bid. Since losing to Richmond, a talented team with a number of high-profile victories, UAlbany is 3-1 with a win at Towson. The lone loss is against red-hot Maine. 

The Best Play Of Week 11  

Elon may have fallen to Maine in Week 11, but the Phoenix provided may be the coolest play of the entire season when defensive end Marcus Willoughby rumbled for a first down on a fake punt. 

The senior Willoughby will end his Elon career in the coming weeks as one of the program’s best defensive players. Adding that offensive highlight to his reel only adds to one of the CAA’s many impressive individual legacies. 

The Best Player Of Week 11

One week after scoring its first CAA win under coach Mike London, William & Mary began its first streak under its new head coach. The Tribe rolled against Rhode Island, 55-19. 

The player of the day for William & Mary isn’t most noteworthy for his contributions in the win, however. Offensive lineman Mark Williamson’s life-saving bone marrow donation highlighted the weekend. 

The CAA has been at the forefront of college football’s growing involvement in Be The Match. That’s thanks to legendary former Villanova coach Andy Talley, who dedicates his post-football life to growing the program’s reach to campuses throughout the nation via the gridiron.

You can learn more about the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation here

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