Dukes ready for showdown with Flames

HARRISONBURG — One program is returning to the postseason for the first time in three years, while the other one is making it’s first-ever Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearance.

James Madison University, making its 11th playoff appearance in school history, will host Liberty University on Saturday in the first round of the FCS playoffs in a battle of two Virginia schools.

“It’s got to be exciting just to have a team come right down the street and play us,” JMU quarterback Vad Lee said of playing an in-state school. “It’s going to be an awesome environment.”

The Dukes (9-3) will be searching for their eighth straight victory. Certainly one big reason for JMU’s success has been the play of the fast-paced offense.

JMU is averaging 36.9 points and 497 yards per contest. That explosive offense starts with Lee, who has thrown for more than 3,000 yards and also leads the team in rushing.

Last week in a 59-27 victory over Elon, Lee completed 19 straight passes at one point, and threw only two incomplete passes the entire game.

The Dukes were also able to run the ball effectively, and if they can do both against the Flames the JMU offense will be very tough to stop.

“Everybody gets pumped up when you break a big run and everything just starts flowing from there,” JMU redshirt senior running back Jauan Latney said. “Explosive play after explosive play, that’s what our offense thrives on.”

The JMU defense will have its hands full with a solid Liberty offense.

The Flames (8-4) are averaging 33.3 points and 426.2 yards per game.

Liberty running back D.J. Abnar has ran for 1,166 yards and 13 touchdowns. Liberty’s normal starting quarterback Josh Woodrum has thrown for 2,521 yards and 19 touchdowns, but he has missed the last three games with an injury. Woodrum’s replacement Stephon Masha has done well in his absence, throwing for 526 yards this season with five touchdowns.

“It’s going to be a good game because I know they’re going to be well-coached,” Withers said. “They’re going to be physical. They’re going to be aggressive and that’s what you expect when you get in this 24-team pool this time of year.”

Liberty is coached by former University of Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill, who has also coached at the University of Kansas. Withers said he and Gill are friends and he knows Liberty will be well-coached.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Withers said. “I think he’s done a great job wherever he’s been with the situation in hand. He had a tough situation at Kansas but I think he handled it as professionally as you can. He’s done a great job in three years at Liberty, unbelievable job there.”

The Dukes have played well in close games this season, which could benefit them if it is another close contest.

JMU certainly has plenty of confidence as it enters the postseason.

“I feel like we have a lot of weapons that give people trouble,” JMU senior defensive lineman Brandon Lee said. “I feel like we have a fast offense that many teams do not see. I don’t want to call us undersized on defense, but we are a lot faster than a lot of people have seen. I feel like going up against our offense and going up against our defense in practice is something that’s helped us all season, and I think it’s going to continue to help us in the postseason.”

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