Steele leading way for Dukes

HARRISONBURG — Gage Steele was everywhere on defense Saturday for James Madison University during its 38-20 victory over Stony Brook.

The JMU redshirt junior linebacker tied a career high with 18 tackles. Steele had six solo tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. JMU head coach Everett Withers said he noticed that Steele, a Warren County graduate, was very active against Stony Brook.

“I think Gage is a really effective player when he just turns it loose and goes,” Withers said. “There are a lot of times where Gage will think and analyze and slow himself down. When he knows exactly what his job description is and he can execute it, he’s a really good football player. Our job as coaches is to continue to grow him in that area where he knows exactly what he’s doing.

“…I think he’s as good as any (line)backer in this league when he’s on his game.”

Steele was named the Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Week. Steele leads the CAA with 11.0 per tackles per game, and leads the Dukes with 55 total for the season.

JMU shut down Stony Brook’s running game Saturday, and Steele said that’s always a goal for the team.

“One of the biggest things we focus on every week is stopping the run, and making a team one dimensional,” Steele said. “So, that was a big focus that we wanted to plan out and execute.”

Defensive experience: JMU’s defense has been successful at stopping the run this season. The Dukes allowed only 109 yards to Stony Brook on Saturday.

Withers said it’s helped that most of the players are in their second season in the new system.

“A lot of the guys are a little bit older in the scheme, and I think they understand it a little bit better,” Withers said. “Credit to our defensive staff really focusing on responsibility — where you need to be in the run game. I think our kids are buying into that.”

The Dukes have allowed 129.8 rushing yards per game, which is third in the CAA.

Withers said success in stopping the run starts with the defensive line.

“I think our front three has done a really good job of allowing some guys to run,” Withers said. “Gage Steele is doing a great job, he had 18 tackles last week. So, he’s able to run and go make some plays. He’s clean to do that, because our front three is doing a good job of keeping people off of him.”

Running strong: A big key to JMU’s success on offense has come from the running game.

The Dukes are averaging 343.8 rushing yards per game, which is second in the Football Championship Subdivision. Even in soggy conditions against Stony Brook the Dukes were able to run for 294 yards.

“I thought our backs did a nice job,” Withers said. “We knew it was going to be tough sledding for us. There was going to be some zero-yard gains, but it doesn’t matter the yards it matters that you keep trying to run the football. We were able to run the football, and I think that was a positive.”

Withers said the team named running back Khalid Abdullah the Offensive Player of the Week. Abdullah finished with 114 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns.

“He had 6.7 yards per carry, but what’s probably more impressive is 95 percent of his yards came after contact,” Withers said. “Khalid has had a very good season for us and continues to play well for us.”

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