Dukes excited for home opener against Saint Francis

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

HARRISONBURG — James Madison University head football coach Everett Withers wants the JMU crowd to have plenty of energy and make lots of noise for the Dukes’ home opener today.

The Dukes host Saint Francis at 4 p.m. in the first-year coach’s first game at Bridgeforth Stadium/Zane Showker Field.

“I’m one of those guys, I love being at home,” Withers said. “And I’m going to challenge our fans. I’m going to challenge our student body to be at a game for four quarters and learn how to finish like we finished [in last week’s win over Lehigh].

“I want to challenge our student body, our faculty, our local support people to be loud, be an obnoxious crowd Saturday, to learn how to be an obnoxious crowd and a good crowd. That’s a challenge to them. We’re excited about being at home.”

The Dukes are coming off a 31-28 victory over Lehigh, in which they used a second-half rally to overcome an 11-point halftime deficit.

JMU will try to use that momentum against Saint Francis, which is also coming off its first win of the season.

One of the big keys in JMU’s win was the play of the offensive line, which dominated in the second half. JMU rushed for 322 yards on 43 carries.

“I’m really proud of our offensive line,” Withers said. “If you look at the end of that ballgame last week, the growth from Week 1 to Week 2 was probably as much [for the offensive line] as any position that we had. And those guys really finished the game. That group, if we’re good in our offensive line and our quarterback has confidence in our offensive line we’re going to be a much improved offense as the year goes on.”

JMU quarterback Vad Lee threw for 284 yards and two touchdown passes in the win, and Withers said he looked much better than he did in the first game against Maryland.

Withers said the way JMU looked on offense in the second half, when they had drives of 99 and 98 yards, was what the coaching staff expects for every game.

“We’re starting to do the things we need to do offensively,” Withers said. “What we did in the second half is what I envisioned us being able to do from start to finish in a ballgame. That’s what I’d like to be able to do. That’s what our staff would like to be able to do.”

Millbrook graduate A.J. Bolden, who was injured in the Maryland game, did not play against Lehigh. Withers said they are hoping he will be back for Saint Francis. JMU running back Khalid Abdullah suffered an injury against Lehigh, and Withers said they were hopeful he would be back this week as well.

Defensively, the Dukes have struggled this season, especially against the run. JMU has allowed an average of 286 yards per game on the ground, and another 201.5 through the air.

JMU could get a lift this week with the return of Gage Steele. The Warren County graduate and JMU redshirt sophomore linebacker missed the first two games of the season due to a hip injury. Steele is expected to make his season debut against the Red Flash.

The Dukes will be facing a tough rushing attack on Saturday. Saint Francis has rushed for an average of 197.5 yards per game. The Red Flash are led by junior tailback Khiari Dickson, who has 392 yards and four rushing touchdowns in two games.

“What he did last week, a lot of the runs came out of the Wildcat set. They were direct snaps to him out of the Wildcat set,” Withers said of Dickson. “He has tremendous vision. He has great straight-line speed. He does a nice job in the perimeter of eluding tackles. We’re going to have to do a good job of getting enough bodies around him to tackle a talented running back.”

Last year the Red Flash put up a fight against the Dukes, before coming up short in a 24-20 JMU victory.

Withers said the Dukes will be ready for the Red Flash, and expect a tough game.

“We can’t turn the ball over,” Withers said. “They’ll be able to run the football. We have to do a good job of stopping more of a traditional run game. I expect them to be a tough opponent. They came in here last year and nearly pulled out a ballgame. So there’s not going to be anybody in our building looking past Saint Francis, I promise you that.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd