Dukes face challenge of Lehigh

James Madison University started its football season off in impressive fashion last week. However, this week will provide a much tougher test for the Dukes.

JMU hosts Lehigh on Saturday at Bridgeforth Stadium at 4 p.m., and if the game is anything like last season’s showdown, the Dukes will be in for a dogfight.

JMU had to rally after a lightning delay for a 31-28 win last year on the road. JMU coach Everett Withers said last year’s win could help the team on Saturday.

“Having that experience of playing Lehigh we feel a little more comfortable, because we know what they want to try to do offensively,” Withers said. “They’re a quarterback laden offense. They want to be able to run it, throw it and the quarterback is the key to their offense.”

Lehigh quarterback Nick Shafnisky went 19-for-27 for 263 yards in a win against Central Connecticut State last week. Shafnisky also ran for 83 yards.

Withers said Shafnisky is much like JMU quarterback Vad Lee, and definitely presents some problems for the Dukes.

“He’s one of those guys if a play breaks down he can take off and get you positive yards,” Withers said. “He’s a very, very capable guy at quarterback both with his arms and his legs. He’s the No. 1 guy that we’ve got to make sure we take care of this week.”

Lehigh running back Dom Bragalone ran for 68 yards last week, while the receiving duo of Gaitlin Casey and Trevor Socarras had a combined 13 receptions for 147 yards.

JMU’s defense looked sharp in its opening victory over Morehead State. The Dukes held Morehead State to just 52 yards rushing, but Withers said this week will present a much different challenge as the Mountain Hawks like to run the ball more than Morehead State does.

Withers said one thing his defense needs to improve on is doing better on first down.

“We’ve got to win more first downs on defense,” Withers said. “We’ve got to get them in second and long. … Hopefully get them in third and long. We had too many third-and-three’s, -two’s, -one’s. We’ve got to find a way to stop that, and how you do that is you win first down. So we’ve got to continue to get better.”

Offensively, JMU couldn’t have performed much better in the season opener. The Dukes scored 56 points and set a school-record with 713 total yards. The Dukes also had three players (Lee, Cardon Johnson and Khalid Abdullah) rush for more than 100 yards each for the first time in program history.

Withers said he was pleased with how the team played on offense, but there’s always room for improvements.

Last season the Mountain Hawks struggled defensively, which played a role in the team going 3-8 on the season.

“I think last year they were disappointed with how their defense played,” Withers said. “I think that’s one of their goals is to play better run defense this year. I think we expect a better defensive effort from them this year.”

JMU played 13 true freshman last week. Withers said he was pleased with their effort and he wants to see how the freshmen play this week against a different opponent.

The Mountain Hawks won the Patriot League three times in the last nine years, and Withers said this should be a real test for both teams.

“I think coach (Andy) Cohen has done a great job of after last year having a disappointing season. Lehigh has a lot of history. I feel like getting them back on track is what they’re trying to do. This is a big game for them and it’s a big game for us.”

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