By Tommy Keeler Jr.
James Madison University football coach Mickey Matthews and University of Richmond coach Danny Rocco believe that today's Colonial Athletic Association game between their teams could easily be a battle of undefeated teams.
The two squads enter the game with a combined 6-5 record, but both teams have suffered tough last-minute losses.
"Both teams could easily be undefeated right now," Matthews said. "Their situation is just like ours. Our two losses were down to the last series of the game and certainly theirs have been, too. It shows you that the difference between winning and losing is so small in college football. I don't even think about them being 2-3 because they have so many good players."
The Dukes are 4-2, but lost by two points to Akron, and by seven points to Delaware.
The Spiders have lost three games by a combined 11 points, and Rocco said his club has to find a way to pull out those close games.
"You have to be able to finish a game," Rocco said. "At this point in time we've not been able to handle adversity. Every team has adversity and we've certainly had our share of ours. I know last year we responded better to that."
Both teams have one loss in the conference already, which makes today's 3:30 p.m. contest at JMU even more important.
A big key for the Spiders, according to Rocco, will be Richmond's ability to run the ball.
The Spiders are only averaging 107 yards per game this season on the ground.
"Right now, we just don't have good balance," Rocco said. "It's good to be able to throw the ball, but not at the expense of not being able to run it. That was a little bit of my concern going into the season, and it's played out that way."
The one thing the Spiders do well is throw the ball. University of Virginia transfer quarterback Michael Strauss has thrown for 1,413 yards on 131 for 203 passing. He has nine touchdown passes and four interceptions.
His two favorite targets are Ben Edwards (35 receptions for 353 yards) and Stephen Barnette (31 catches for 541 yards). The Spiders also use Edwards in a Wildcat formation some, and he has rushed for 101 yards on 17 carries this season.
"They just make sure that [Edwards] handles the ball 20 snaps a game," Matthews said. "They snap it to him. They throw it to him."
Matthews said he's concerned how JMU's pass defense will hold up against the Spiders. JMU has struggled against the pass all season, and may be without starting cornerback Kwe'shon Williams (hip flexor) for a second straight game.
"[Williams] has developed into our best corner," Matthews said. "We really felt the effects of that last week. We're just not very good there and we've got to get better."
The Dukes have been very strong against the run all season, led by linebackers Stephon Robertson and Warren County graduate Gage Steele, who was named the Sports Network National Freshman of the Week last week. Steele has also been added to the Jerry Rice Award Watch List, the award given out to the FCS' top freshman each year. Steele had a career-high 18 tackles, including 13 solo in the Dukes' win over Albany last week.
JMU's offense looked sharp against the Great Danes, especially the passing game. JMU quarterback Michael Birdsong has thrown for 1,312 yards with 11 touchdowns this season. The 6-foot-4 Birdsong's favorite target has been 6-foot-5 redshirt junior wide receiver Daniel Brown, who has caught 23 passes for 392 yards. The two connected on three touchdown passes against Albany.
Matthews said this is not only a big game because they are in the same conference, but because there is such an intense rivalry between the two schools.
"It's such a big game because it's JMU-Richmond," Matthews said. "We're so close and the youngsters on both teams are aware of each other. ... It will be a playoff atmosphere. It will be really loud. Both teams are going to play really hard. The teams don't like each other. I don't think there's any question about that.
"That may be the understatement of the year."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd