Turnover battle key for Dukes against Great Danes

HARRISONBURG – Elimination turnovers could be the key to success this week for James Madison University.

The Dukes, who are ranked No. 10 in the FCS Coaches Poll, open up Colonial Athletic Association football play Saturday hosting the University at Albany at 3 p.m. The Great Danes have already forced six turnovers in two games this season, and last year they led the nation in turnover margin.

“One of the things we’ve talked about this week for us is being a better ball security team,” JMU head coach Everett Withers said. “We had two turnovers last week and those are not acceptable for us. We’ve got to be able to take care of the football.

“That’s going to be big.”

Last year Albany thrived off turnovers and not much has changed early this season.

“I think it all starts from their head coach and the staff as far as taking care of the football,” Withers said. “The other thing is they play good sound defense. So if you make mistakes they’ll make you pay for it with interceptions, with fumbles and those kinds of things.”

Withers said Albany will want to keep the ball on offense and not let JMU’s offense have many possessions. He said that was part of the reason the game was so close last year.

The Dukes needed a last-second field goal by Ryan Maglio to pull out a 31-28 victory on the road against Albany last season.

Albany (1-1, 1-0 CAA) has some threats on offense. The Great Danes are averaging 24.5 points per game led by Penn State transfer D.J. Crook.

“He’s a guy that can run it, but I don’t think that’s his strong suit,” Withers said. “I think he can run the football, so he has some escape ability in the pocket. He’s got a good arm. … I think he’s definitely a quality quarterback that we will have to account for throwing the football and running the football.”

Crook has thrown for 295 yards on 30-for-49 passing with three touchdowns and three interceptions. He also has 39 yards rushing.

Josh Gontarek is Crook’s top wide receiver with 10 receptions for 117 yards and two touchdowns.

The running game has been led by running back Elliot Croskey with 170 yards on 45 carries and two touchdowns.

The Dukes (2-0) are allowing only 12.0 points per game. JMU has been really strong against the run, allowing only 61.0 yards per game. They also had seven sacks last week against Lehigh. However, the Dukes will be without starter Simeyon Robinson, who was suspended indefinitely from the team earlier this week. Redshirt sophomore Evans Osuji is expected to start at nose guard in his place.

JMU has had few problems this season on offense. The Dukes are averaging 665.5 yards of offense and 55.5 points per contest. Albany has allowed 383.5 yards per game.

Withers said that there’s still room for improvement on offense, including scoring touchdowns in the red zone. The Dukes settled for two field goals in last week’s win over Lehigh. He said penalties played a role in having to settle for the field goals. The Dukes have been penalized 17 times for 174 yards this season.

The Dukes have been able to pull away from their first two opponents, but Withers said he thinks the Great Danes will provide a good test.

“It’s a great conference opener,” Withers said. “I think the level just keeps rising for us as we go through the season. I’m excited about our preparation this week, and our plan to come out and be 3-0 at the end of the week.”

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