Game against Wildcats offers ‘barometer’ for Dukes

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

HARRISONBURG — Today’s game against Villanova will help James Madison University know more about how good they really are.

The Dukes will play on the road at the No. 7 ranked Wildcats at 12:30 p.m. JMU lost its season opener to Football Bowl Subdivision Maryland. Then they bounced back with two wins against Football Championship Subdivision teams. Now they will face one of the top teams in the Colonial Athletic Association as well as the FCS.

“We’d like to be able to go on the road this week against a tough opponent and play well and that’s our objective,” JMU head coach Everett Withers said. “It will be a good barometer to where we are as a team.”

The Dukes have improved with each week on offense. Part of that has been the play of Vad Lee.

The junior quarterback has thrown for 572 yards on 50 for 105 passing and four touchdowns, and has rushed for a team-best 269 yards on 36 carries and one touchdown.

Against Saint Francis, the Dukes ran for 174 yards and threw for 147.

Withers said it will be tough for the Dukes on offense against a stout Villanova defense, which has allowed only 33 points in its first two games.

“They play a little bit of an interesting scheme. They’re a 3-3 stack scheme,” Withers said. “When you’re a defensive coach, what you like about what they do is they really chase the football. They really trigger and go to the football really, really hard. They know what they’re doing. They’ve been doing the scheme for a while, so it’s one of those defenses that you have to prepare for. We’re going to have to do a really great job in preparation for our offensive line, because it’s a little bit different scheme than we normally see.”

JMU has struggled at times on defense this season, especially at stopping the run. The Dukes gave up over 200 yards of offense in the first quarter, before settling down over the last three quarters.

Warren County graduate and JMU redshirt sophomore linebacker Gage Steele started, but his playing time was limited against the Red Flash. Steele missed the first two games of the season due to a hip injury, and Withers said they are trying to ease him back into things and having him back full-time will help the Dukes tremendously.

“I think when we get Gage Steele back comfortable at playing linebacker, I think that will help our run defense,” Withers said. “I think Gage will do a good job of helping us solidify that linebacking core.”

The Dukes will have their hands full trying to stop Villanova quarterback John Roberston.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior has thrown for 415 yards on 33 for 51 passing and four touchdowns. He also is the team’s leading rusher with 176 yards and one touchdown.

“I think he’s elusive and he’s also a big kid,” Villanova head coach Andy Talley said. “I think his ability to create on the run is important, and I think any time that you have a quarterback that’s mobile and can run he can create passing lanes to throw the ball to.

“John’s really fast. He ran away from Syracuse’s guys, and they had some pretty fast cats.”

Robertson will not be at 100 percent. He broke his left hand, his non-throwing hand, against Fordham two weeks ago. Talley said he has a soft cast on it, but he doesn’t expect it to be an issue.

Talley said the key for the Wildcats is to get the running game going.

“We need to be able to establish a running game, and that could be very difficult against James Madison, who has an excellent defense,” Talley said. “We’ve played them over the years. They’re probably as athletic, if not the most athletic team in the league. Nothing has changed from what I’ve seen on tape. They can all run. So we’re going to have our hands full trying to move the ball against their defense.”

This is the first CAA game of the season for the Dukes, and Withers said he believes his team will be up to the challenge.

“We talked about the first [three] games of the year building up to the first conference game on the road. This will be a little bit different mindset for us, I would hope,” Withers said. “I hope that our players understand that now they really count in the conference standings. So I would hope our kids tackle this one. We had success here last year against Villanova, and want to be able to do that again on the road.”

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