Dukes look to keep win streak going

HARRISONBURG — James Madison University head football coach Everett Withers is trusting his players this week.

With a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth likely already sealed, coming off a big win over a rival, Withers believes his team can stay focused against a 1-10 Elon squad when they meet today at noon. To make things even more complicated, it is Senior Day for JMU’s 19 seniors.

“We challenged our football team [last Sunday], our underclassmen, to make Senior Day the most positive day for our senior class,” Withers said. “Then we challenged our senior class to make sure that our team is locked in and focused so we could have the opportunity to move forward and go win No. 9. That was a big part of what we talked about on Sunday is finishing our regular season the right way. Coming out of the month of November undefeated — that’s kind of a goal for us.”

The Dukes have won six games in a row and will be facing an Elon squad that has lost eight in a row. The Phoenix have played some strong squads close this season. They only lost to William and Mary by 10 points, and lost by 10 points to a Delaware team which beat JMU.

The biggest problem for the Phoenix this season has been scoring, especially early in the game. Last week they scored in the first quarter against Maine, in a 24-17 loss, and it was the first time they had scored in the first quarter since Sept. 27.

Elon quarterback Mike Quinn has thrown for 2,235 yards with nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Kierre Brown (55 catches for 674 yards and four touchdowns), Demitri Alison (49 receptions for 457 yards) and Andre Davis (45 catches for 388 yards) lead the way at wide receiver.

“They do a nice job of throwing the ball around,” Withers said. “They’ve got a couple talented receivers. They’ve had some struggles running the football, but they do a nice job of throwing the football. I think what we’ve got to do is play really good defense. We’ve got to stop the run and not give up big plays on defense.”

The Dukes did a good job of that in their 55-20 victory over Richmond last week. The JMU secondary had a very strong game, led by Taylor Reynolds. The redshirt sophomore cornerback returned two interceptions for touchdowns and forced two fumbles.

Elon is averaging only 12.9 points per game, and allowing 27.9 per game. The Phoenix are led by Jonathan Spain on defense. Withers said he tried to recruit Spain, when he was a coach at the University of North Carolina. Spain has 111 tackles, including 2.5 sacks.

Elon will have its hands full with an explosive JMU offense led by redshirt junior quarterback Vad Lee. The Georgia Tech transfer broke his own school record by throwing for 433 yards on 27-for-37 passing and two touchdowns.

Withers said Lee is improving in many ways, including off the field.

“He’s playing at a pretty high level right now,” Withers said. “I think that the growth that he’s shown is really neat to see, when a guy comes in his first year and puts up the numbers that he’s putting up. The thing that a lot of people don’t see is just his growth as a leader, not on Saturday’s, but Sunday through Friday. That’s what’s neat to see in him with his teammates.”

Lee has thrown for 3,066 yards with 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also has 741 yards rushing, to lead the Dukes, with seven touchdowns.

The Dukes will look to extend its winning streak and head into the playoffs with some momentum.

Withers said the most important thing is honoring the senior class, which includes Handley graduate and JMU cornerback Jeremiah Wilson.

“Our job is to get our football team ready to play and excited about playing for the senior class,” Withers said. “We’ve got a senior class that’s going out, that we owe every bit of our effort to, to make their potentially last game at Bridgeforth a good one. If it’s not [the last home game] hopefully it builds something moving forward.”

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