Dukes face tough challenge in season opener

HARRISONBURG – James Madison University is not facing an easy opponent in its opening football game of the season.

The Dukes host Morehead State at 6 p.m. tonight at Bridgeforth Stadium. Morehead State won seven games last season and has a lot of returners back this year.

“(Morehead State) Coach (Rob Tenyer) has done a tremendous job there,” first-year JMU head football coach Mike Houston said. “I think he’s in his fourth season as head coach, 16th season with the program. So he certainly knows what he has. He has his philosophy embedded. You look at them – they’re a very good (Football Championship Subdivision) football team. I know they have visions this year of being in the national playoffs. That’s their goal – to win the Pioneer Football League. So they have similar aspirations to what we have.”

Morehead State is led by quarterback Austin Gahafer. Last year he threw for 3,244 yards and 24 touchdowns.

For his career Gahafer has thrown for 8,514 yards and 60 touchdowns.

“I think that everything is going to run through the quarterback,” Houston said. “He’s very talented running and passing. I think we’re going to have to do a variety of things in coverage to give Gahafer a variety of different looks. I don’t think you can just sit there and play one thing. We’ve got to move some personnel around and play some different coverages. I think we got to make him feel uneasy in the pocket if we can.”

Wide receiver Jake Raymond is the Eagles’ top returning receiver. Last year he caught 72 passes for 722 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Last year the Dukes beat the Eagles, 56-7.

“I look at that as how dangerous they are coming into this game, because they have so much experience coming back,” Houston said of last year’s contest. “Those top offensive players have experience in our stadium. They’re not going to be startled by the stage. So I expect to really be challenged this Saturday defensively.”

The last two years the Dukes have struggled defensively. Last year they gave up 28.7 points per game.

Morehead State also struggled defensively last season, allowing 25.3 points per contest.

Houston said that the Eagles return a strong nucleus of players on the defensive side of the ball. The Eagles have a new defensive coordinator, Zack Moore, and Houston said that it makes it tougher to know what to expect from them defensively.

“Schematically we got to be ready for everything, because with the new coordinator he’s going to implement kind of his thoughts and his presence of what they do (on) the field,” Houston said. “So we got to be prepared for everything.”

The Dukes return a lot on offense. Last year the Dukes averaged 44.3 points and 528.8 yards of offense. They were one of the top-rated offenses in FCS.

Running backs Cardon Johnson and Khalid Abdullah are both back, as well as most of the top receivers.

The Dukes also have two quarterbacks battling for the starting spot. Junior Bryan Schor and redshirt junior Connor Mitch, who transferred from the University of South Carolina, will both be ready to play, according to Houston.

The game will be the first at JMU for Houston, who was the head coach at The Citadel last year. He said he’s excited to get the season under way.

“I’ve never had a job that I didn’t enjoy, and that I didn’t love the place that I was working at and love the people that I was working with,” Houston said. “So I’ve been very fortunate in my career, and I think that James Madison is no different. I feel honored and blessed to be here, and hopefully this is a relationship that lasts a long time.”

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