Dukes excited for coming bye week

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

HARRISONBURG — James Madison University football players Brandon Lee, Vad Lee, Brandon Ravenel and DeAndre Smith looked at each other and let out a collective sigh of relief. That was their reaction in the post-game press conference Saturday when asked about the Dukes’ upcoming bye week.

The JMU players have plenty of reasons to feel good after the Dukes’ 62-7 win over Towson on Saturday, and having a bye week will add to their elation.

“The coaches cut out some practices for us,” Vad Lee said of the bye week. “We get the opportunity to go home next weekend. So I know I’m excited about that, a lot of guys are excited about that. Just to be able to take a break from football, watch a bunch of football next Saturday. It’s going to be fun. We’re all going to enjoy ourselves.”

JMU head coach Everett Withers said playing well and getting a victory heading into the bye week was a big objective of the team’s as they prepared for Towson.

“I think the biggest thing about this game was we wanted to go into the bye week with a positive feeling,” Withers said. “Really the last two weeks, we took this as two big games for us. Going on the road to Albany was big for us. Then we knew if we could go win at Albany and then come play a tough, physical Towson team and [win], then [we would] have a bye week, so we could get ready for the stretch run of the season. So I think our kids did a nice job of accomplishing a lot of things the last couple weeks.”

Withers said the players will have off from Thursday to Sunday so they can go home and visit family, before returning to a team meeting next Sunday evening.

Withers said the bye week is a good thing for the players, especially since it’s mid-term week.

“The most important thing is we want them to rest,” Withers said. “We’re still in the process of developing a lot of young guys, so a lot of those young guys are going to be getting a bunch of work this week. We want to take the guys that have had significant snaps for us, and get them off their feet and get them some rest this week.

“This is about mid-term. I want them to really lock in on academics this next week.”

DEFENSE RISING: JMU’s defense struggled mightily in the first part of the season.

The Dukes’ young defense has started to improve over the last few games. JMU played its best defensive game of the season Saturday against Towson.

Entering the game, JMU was allowing 34.8 points and 473.5 yards of offense per game. Towson had the second-leading rusher in the Colonial Athletic Conference in sophomore tailback Darius Victor. The Dukes held Victor to only 37 yards on 12 carries, and held the Tigers to only 67 yards rushing.

“We had to stop the run,” JMU senior defensive end Brandon Lee said. “Honestly, we knew they were going to try to run the ball against us. That was a big emphasis in practice.”

Brandon Lee was named the CAA Defensive Player of the Week on Monday for his five tackles and three forced fumbles against Towson. He was also selected as the Sports Network National Player of the Week.

Withers said his young defense is growing in confidence with each game and becoming more aggressive.

“I think we really challenged our guys the past two weeks of being physical and stopping the run, and as you watch our guys practice I felt like the last two weeks we’ve been more physical in practice,” Withers said. “We’re pressuring more on defense than we were the first part of the year. I think our kids are starting to understand the gist of the pressure game. You have to understand that we had too many big plays early in the year, where one guy was out of a gap in pressure and the thing would split and that’s bad defense.

“I think our guys are being held more accountable for their job descriptions in the pressure game, and to me that’s what’s important.”

JMU true freshman Jimmy Moreland earned the CAA Rookie of the Week on Monday for the second time this season for a blocked field goal and interception return for a touchdown against the Tigers.

Brandon Lee said the win over Towson could be big for the defense moving forward.

“We’re young on the defensive side, but our coaches trust us that we can come out and [play like that],” Lee said of the performance against Towson. “I don’t want to say it was a confidence thing, but now that we see we can put up showings like that, I think that’s going to be a great thing for us going into the second half of the season.”

VITAL TRIO: JMU has used a lot of receivers this season, but there are three that are starting to stand out for the Dukes.

Sophomore Brandon Ravenel, senior DeAndre Smith and redshirt junior tight end Deane Cheatham had big games for JMU against Towson.

Ravenel has been battling injuries most of the season, but is finally healthy again. He finished the game with eight receptions for 107 yards and a touchdown. He entered the game with seven for 70 yards.

“Brandon’s been nicked up a lot this year, so getting him back and healthy was big,” Withers said. “He’s one of our threats, as far as when you can get the ball in his hands, he can run and he catches the ball well.”

Smith, who played both offense and defense for the Dukes last season, has been playing better and better with each game. He had four receptions for 55 yards and two touchdowns, giving him a team-best four receiving touchdowns for the year. Cheatham had seven receptions for 66 yards against the Tigers, which gives him a team-best 26 receptions for the season for a team-best 302 yards.

“[DeAndre’s] been really steady and really sharp and learning the offense, has really good hands,” Withers said. “Deane’s been that way all year long. So those three guys have done a really nice job. We’ve got other guys who we feel we can continue to enhance their role in our offense. We’re throwing the ball to a number of different receivers, and I think that’s important in us doing our offense.”

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