Dukes, Charlotte have much in common

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

HARRISONBURG — When James Madison University head football coach Everett Withers was watching film on the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, he saw a team that looked awfully familiar to him.

“As I’ve watched film on them for the last week and a half, it’s been almost like looking in the mirror at us, at times,” Withers said. “I know this football team is new and only playing football — this is their second year. I tell you, what you see is they won the first three ballgames, and then they’ve lost the last four but you see a team that’s getting better each week. I know that [Charlotte head] coach [Brad] Lambert, I’ve known coach Lambert a while, and he’s trying to instill a culture in a program and you can see it’s growing each week.”

The 49ers, who are only in their second year as a football program, have a high-powered offense much like JMU’s. The two teams meet today at Charlotte at noon. Charlotte is averaging 37.6 points per game, playing up-tempo like the Dukes. Charlotte has had seven plays of 50 or more yards on offense.

Charlotte quarterback Matt Johnson has thrown for 1,770 yards this season with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His favorite target has been redshirt sophomore Austin Duke, who has 56 receptions for 966 yards and eight touchdowns.

“[Duke] is one of the best we’ll face all year. He’s one of those guys, he’s very good in space,” Duke said. “He can split the defense and go the distance. He’s a very good receiver when he gets one-on-one coverage. …He’s very talented. He’s probably their biggest playmaker on offense, but they do have some other weapons also.”

Charlotte is a very balanced team, having rushed for 1,733 yards and passed for 1,866 yards. They 49ers are averaging 495.7 yards per game this season and have scored over 50 points twice.

Charlotte running back Kalif Phillips has rushed for 749 yards on 127 carries and 11 touchdowns. Johnson, the quarterback, also has 382 yards rushing on 59 carries.

The Dukes are coming off their best defensive performance of the season. JMU held Towson to only seven points and only 67 yards rushing in a 62-7 victory on Oct. 11.

JMU has had to play a lot of young players on defense this season, and Withers said he’s seen some real improvement on that side of the ball.

“I feel like our defensive coaches have done a good job of growing some of our young guys that have had to play this year, and that process will continue throughout the season with us,” Withers said. “It will be a week-to-week growth process with this defense. I like where we’re headed and hopefully that trend will continue as the last part of the season presents itself.”

JMU will not have senior starting safety Dean Marlowe for the first half against the 49ers. Marlowe was ejected in the second half of the win over Towson for targeting, and by rule has to sit out the first half of the next contest.

Marlowe was ejected for the same thing early in a 31-28 win over Albany on Oct. 4 and was replaced by true freshman Marcel Johnson, who went on to have 14 tackles in the game. Handley graduate Jeremiah Wilson could also help fill the void. Wilson was out with an injury against Albany, but returned to the lineup against Towson a week later.

Much like JMU, Charlotte has struggled on defense this season. The 49ers are allowing 451.3 yards and 27.7 points per game this season.

Things will not get easier for the 49ers against the Dukes, who are averaging 488.4 yards and 31.9 points per game. Charlotte has been tougher against the run, allowing 183.9 yards per game. JMU leads the Colonial Athletic Association averaging 246.7 rushing yards per game.

“I think our objective each week is how do we find a way to run the football?” Withers said. “How do we find a way to keep the ball and run the football, and keep the ball moving down the field and away from another opponent that scores a lot of points? So that’s going to be important for us, that we do a very good job. We’re going to try to find a way to run the football. That’s obviously what we want to do.”

JMU typically uses a four-pronged rushing attack. Running backs Khalid Abdullah, Jauan Latney and John Miller split time carrying the ball, and have combined for 861 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. JMU’s leading rusher this season is quarterback Vad Lee, who has ran 111 times for 562 yards and four touchdowns.

Lee has also thrown for 1,662 yards on 136 for 248 passing. He has 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.

The game will be a homecoming of sorts for Withers, who was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. Withers said he’s still looking at it just like he would every other game.

“I think UNCC is a program that’s always deserved football,” Withers said. “I felt like if they ever got football there, it would grow into something big and special. … I’m very happy for Charlotte to have that school have a football team now. It will be fun. I’m sure I’ll see people at the game that I know and those type things, but again this is a long journey. I’ll look back on it after the season.”

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