Dukes ready to face Phoenix

HARRISONBURG — James Madison University’s football team has a target on its back.

The Dukes are undefeated, ranked No. 5 in both the Football Championship Subdivision Coaches poll and the STATS FCS poll, and are putting up impressive offensive numbers. The team is aware it will get everyone’s best shot, including today’s game at Elon University at 3 p.m.

“Just being JMU, there’s going to be a target on your back just because that’s the way it is. There’s definitely going to be a target that comes with success anywhere,” JMU senior tight end Deane Cheatham said. “The maturity of our team and the leadership of our team is just going to have to handle that and focus on what we do.”

JMU is coming off a tough road contest at Towson, where the Dukes were challenged by the Tigers. JMU led throughout the game, but Towson cut the lead to 27-23 in the third quarter. The Dukes rose to the occasion and outscored the Tigers 24-7 the rest of the way.

Cheatham said that the team seems to enjoy being challenged and stepping up when needed.

“We just have a lot of guys that love making plays, and love big moments,” Cheatham said. “We do things right at big times. It’s exciting.”

Elon defeated Towson, 17-13, earlier this year. The Phoenix average 12.7 points per game, and have only rushed for 454 yards all season.

However, Elon has used two quarterbacks and they have both been effective. True freshman Daniel Thompson, missed three games due to injury, but has thrown for 502 yards and three touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Connor Christiansen has thrown for 448 yards and three touchdowns.

The Phoenix are in a rebuilding mode, but JMU head coach Everett Withers said they are on the way up.

“(Elon head coach) Rich (Skrosky), I think, has got them going in the right direction,” Withers said. “It takes time sometimes to get a program going. I know he’s recruiting really hard, because we’re battling them in recruiting some. I think he’s got them headed in the right direction. I know they’ll play hard.”

Withers said he’s really impressed with Elon safety Chris Blair, who has 57 tackles on the season. The Phoenix are allowing 24.2 points per game.

Offensively, JMU continues to put up big numbers. The Dukes are averaging 48.3 points per game and 614.5 yards per game, including 320.7 on the ground.

JMU quarterback Vad Lee has thrown for 1,698 yards and 17 touchdowns this season, and has also rushed for 616 yards. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Lee. He is from Durham, North Carolina, which is only 44 miles from Elon.

The Dukes are only allowing 128.0 rushing yards per game as the run defense continues to be a strong point for the team. JMU redshirt linebacker Gage Steele leads the team with 60 tackles.

Even though JMU is having a strong season the Dukes are still a young squad. The Dukes have only 10 seniors on the team. Withers said he’s really been happy with how the 10 seniors have helped lead the younger players on the team. Withers said they have a unity council, made up of football players, that meets every week to discuss how they can do a better job working with the younger guys.

“I think our seniors and our unity council guys have done an unbelievable job of guiding the young players on our football team,” Withers said. “We felt like we were going to be a young football team this year. …So, (success was going to depend on) how well some of our young guys progressed.”

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