Dukes travel to face undefeated Albany

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

HARRISONBURG — After suffering a tough overtime loss last week, things won’t get any easier for James Madison University this weekend.

The Dukes play on the road today at undefeated Albany. The Great Danes have the top rushing defense in the Colonial Athletic Conference, and one of the best overall defenses in the league.

“I just think they do a nice job with what they do on defense,” JMU head coach Everett Withers said. “They know their system. They do a nice job with that system.”

Albany head coach Greg Gattuso is in his first year as head coach, after spending the last three years at the University of Maryland as a defensive coach. He was also the head coach at Duquesne from 1993-2004.

It’s been a remarkable turnaround for Albany this season. The Great Danes struggled last season, their first year in the CAA, and went 1-11.

Albany has only played one CAA contest, a 37-20 win over Rhode Island. Gattuso said this will be a big test for his squad.

“I think we’ve played pretty well, and I think we’re gaining some confidence,” Gattuso said. “But all that said, we understand that this conference is a little bit different than our opening games. We’re going to get into the nitty-gritty real fast here with JMU coming in. This is going to be a big football game for us, and how we play will certainly dictate our success as we go forward.”

Albany is led by linebackers Michael Nicastro and Christian Dorsey, who are averaging around eight tackles per game.

The Great Danes are allowing only 72 yards rushing per game, and 294.2 yards total per contest.

“I keep telling everybody our defense is probably more scrappy than imposing looking,” Gattuso said. “They play really hard. The biggest thing right now is we’ve cut down on big plays. The other thing is we’re [forcing] turnovers. We’re causing a lot of fumbles, and we’re starting to get our hands on a lot of interceptions.”

JMU’s offense has moved the ball well on offense most of the season. The Dukes struggled to finish drives last week in their 30-23 overtime defeat to Delaware. JMU is averaging 490 yards per game, and has been very balanced (244 on the ground and and 246 through the air).

However, last week the Dukes had trouble running the ball and Withers said they have to get back to being successful in the running game.

“I think our objective this week is to be able to get back to the run game, and be able to get back to what we do,” Withers said. “That’s what we are and that’s what we want to be able to do. We want to be able to do that, so that sets up the rest of our offense.”

Albany’s offense is led by redshirt senior Omar Osbourne. The 6-foot-1 195-pounder has 541 yards rushing on 97 carries, which is tops in the CAA in yards per game.

“He’s kind of a slasher type runner, has great balance,” Withers said. “They do a nice job up front blocking for him, but he does nice job of getting those extra yards. He’s always falling forward. He’s always trying to fight for that extra yard. He’s a tough physical runner, so that will be a big challenge for us this week to be able to coral him in the run game.

“I’ve watched some tape on some other teams and he looks like he’s bottled up and then he comes out the front of that thing and he’s gone.”

JMU has had trouble on defense all season. They are giving up 484 yards of offense per game, but they did show some signs of improvement last week in the loss to Delaware.

Warren County graduate and JMU redshirt sophomore Gage Steele is finally healthy again after missing the first two games of the season with a hip injury. Steele had a key interception and led the Dukes with seven tackles last week. Sage Harold also had a strong game for the Dukes with two sacks.

“We’ve got to do a better job on protecting and leveraging the football on the edges a little better,” Withers said. “What I thought we did good was, I thought we played with more energy and passion at times in our early downs, as far as pressuring the quarterback or pressuring the run game. … I feel like we’re headed in the right direction in what we want to get done, especially on first and second down. For me, that’s the key for our defense to get better.”

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