By Tommy Keeler Jr.
There's plenty on the line when Colonial Athletic Association football rivals James Madison University and Old Dominion University meet tonight at 7 p.m.
JMU's playoff chances are at stake, while the Monarchs could miss out on a playoff home game if they were to lose to the Dukes.
"I think you can look at this game and say this is like a first-round playoff game," ODU head coach Bobby Wilder said. "I think both teams feel like it's got that kind of implications to it."
ODU (9-1) is ineligible for the CAA's automatic bid because they are moving to the FBS next year. However, they will most certainly get an at-large bid into the 20-team playoffs.
With ODU out of the picture, New Hampshire is in first place with a one-game lead over four other teams, including JMU, for the CAA title. If New Hampshire loses today against Towson, there could be a five-way tie for first in the CAA. There are around 20 different scenarios as to who would get the CAA's automatic bid, but JMU's chances of attaining that are very slim.
Even though the rivalry between JMU and ODU is new, it's already become very intense.
"Last year I said this before the game, I'd never been around a bigger rivalry in my career for two teams that had never played before," JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. "It's like we'd been playing for 80 years."
The game will be televised on NBC Sports Network and it figures to be a shootout.
ODU is second in the FCS in scoring, averaging 45.1 points per game. The Monarchs are also averaging 556.8 yards per game.
A big part of their offense comes from quarterback Taylor Heinicke. The sophomore has thrown for 3,801 yards on 303 for 446 passing with 31 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Matthews compared Heinicke to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Heinicke has 387 yards rushing this season with eight touchdowns on the ground.
"The reason they do so well on offense is because their quarterback is a great athlete," Matthews said. "He is like an old single-wing tailback. He makes more plays with his feet than he does with his arm."
The Monarchs have lots of depth at wide receiver, led by Nick Mayers with 60 receptions for 959 yards and 11 touchdowns. ODU has five different receivers with at least 29 receptions.
Matthews said the Dukes will need to play well on defense and get a few stops to have a chance against the Monarchs.
JMU (7-3) is coming off its worst loss of the season, 35-20 to Villanova. Matthews said he had no answer as to why the Dukes played so poorly last week.
Wilder said he expects to see the Dukes at their best when they play today.
"I think they're very explosive on offense," Wilder said. "Then defensively, as always, a Mickey Matthews-coached team is always going to be one of the top defenses in the nation."
The Monarchs have struggled on defense this year, giving up 28.4 points per game and 397.7 yards per game.
JMU has had trouble on offense most of the season. JMU is averaging 28.9 points per game, and almost 400 yards of offense per game. However, in their three losses this season the Dukes have averaged only 20 points a game.
The Dukes have used two different quarterbacks and may even use three when they play ODU. Matthews said he would not talk about injuries this week. Last week's starting quarterback Justin Thorpe suffered an injury in last week's game, and true freshman Michael Birdsong missed last week's game with an ankle injury. Redshirt freshman Lafonte Thourogood played for one snap last week against Villanova.
No matter who is at quarterback, Matthews said he expects it to be a really good game against ODU.
"There's a reason NBC [Sports Network] wants it to be on national television at nighttime," Matthews said. "It's been many years since we've had a national television game at night. I'm sure the nationwide audience will be huge. Two good teams playing.
"It's gonna be a hoot."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org