Dukes ready for improved Rhode Island squad

HARRISONBURG — James Madison University head football coach Mike Houston isn’t expecting today’s contest with Rhode Island to be anything like last year’s game.

Last season the Dukes pounded the Rams, 84-7. This year’s Rhode Island squad is improved and the Rams are coming off a 31-14 Colonial Athletic Association victory over Albany last week. JMU plays at Rhode Island today at noon.

“All you got to do is just flip on the film and look at how the kids look standing there,” Houston said. “You can see the improvement as far as the weight room, they’re a year older, more developed. They look like a CAA football team. You look offensively, and they have three skill players that can take it the distance on any given play.”

Rhode Island (2-6, 1-4 CAA) is led by quarterback JaJuan Lawson, who transferred from the University of New Mexico. Lawson, who wasn’t the starter at the beginning of the season, has thrown for 619 yards and six touchdowns. Lawson is second on the team in rushing yards with 252 yards and one touchdown.

Houston said Lawson reminds him of New Hampshire quarterback Trevor Knight, whom the Dukes were able to slow down in last week’s 21-0 victory.

“He hasn’t been in the offense as long as Knight has been in New Hampshire’s offense,” Houston said. “I think you’re still seeing him improve week to week. I thought the last two weeks he’s played much better than he had the first couple weeks when he took over the starting quarterback job. So I don’t quite know what his ceiling is yet. I hope he’s reached it. I hope he doesn’t reach it (today).

“But I do think that he’s a guy that throws the ball well, that is able to run well. And is one where he’s getting more confident and improving every single week he plays.”

The Rams’ receiving core is led by Aaron Parker. The sophomore has 43 receptions for 747 yards and seven scores this season.

“I think Aaron Parker is probably the most explosive receiver in our league, at least what I’ve seen so far,” Houston said. “I think he ranks up there as maybe the most dynamic skill player we’ve seen all year. He’s a player that on any given play that can make you look silly. His God-given ability is really special.”

Harold Cooper leads Rhode Island’s running game. He has rushed for 456 yards and four touchdowns.

Houston said everything starts up front for Rhode Island’s defense. They are led defensive linemen Brandon Ginnetti, Jose Duncan L.B. Mack III and Mike Ezirike

“They got four down lineman in the top 14 in the league in sacks,” Houston said. “They are big kids, that are athletic and can move around. So we’re going to have to do a great job in the run game. We’re going to have to do a great job of protecting (JMU quarterback) Bryan (Schor). Any time you have a solid defensive front, you look at our defense, that is going to bode well for everything else out there. So I think we’re going to be challenged up front (today).”

JMU (8-0, 5-0 CAA) is ranked No. 1 in both Football Championship Subdivision polls. On Thursday, the FCS selection committee released its initial Top-10 rankings ahead of the playoffs and had JMU ranked No. 1.

The Dukes, who have won 20 consecutive games, are averaging 38.3 points per contest,  and led by Schor. The senior broke the school record for career touchdown passes in last week’s win and now has 83.

JMU’s offensive line, led by redshirt seniors A.J. Bolden and Aaron Stinnie, have had a stretch of games against some of the top-ranked CAA defenses. Houston said he’s been happy with the progress of the offensive line.

“(We faced) some of the top fronts in the league here for the last five weeks, and I really like the way our kids have competed,” Houston said. “I thought we ran the ball better (last week). I thought we had more consistency on our drives (last week). And we hope to see that continue (today).”

The Dukes have one of the top-ranked defenses in FCS, and are allowing only 10 points and 227.6 yards per contest.

Houston said that his team will be challenged on both sides of the ball today against the Rams.

“(Rhode Island) is a team that is playing with a lot of confidence,” Houston said. “It’s a tough place to play. I told our kids that we’re going to be tested this week on a lot of levels. A 12 o’clock kickoff, on the road, a pretty good distance aways. And a quality opponent at their place.”

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