HARRISONBURG — Two of the top-ranked defenses in the country will be squaring off at 7 p.m., tonight at James Madison University’s Bridgeforth Stadium.
JMU hosts Weber State University in the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals. The Dukes have the top-ranked defense in FCS, allowing just 8.8 points per game. The Wildcats are allowing 16.5 points per game, which is 10th in FCS. Tonight’s game will air on ESPN2.
“I usually go through and I highlight outstanding players on each side of the ball each week, and I’ve got everybody on (Weber State’s) defense highlighted,” JMU head football coach Mike Houston said. “They’re a solid unit. You start up the gut, both of their interior defensive tackles are first team all-conference. Both of their middle linebackers are first-team all-conference. Three of the four secondary players are all-conference. They’ve got the Player of the Year at corner. So the Big Sky All-Conference team is basically playing defense for Weber State.”
Weber State cornerback Taron Johnson was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and has three interceptions. Weber State linebacker Legrand Toia leads the team with 73 tackles, including five sacks.
Weber State linebacker Cardon Malan leads the Wildcats with 7.5 sacks.
As strong as Weber State is defensively, the Wildcats are also pretty solid on offense. The Wildcats (10-3) average 34.2 points per contest, which is 17th in FCS.
Weber State quarterback Stefan Cantwell leads the offense. Cantwell is 25-years old, having played a year each at Dixie State University and Snow College. Both schools are in Utah. He also served on a Morman mission for three years, before returning to college football.
Cantwell has thrown for 2,740 yards and 23 touchdowns, and has also rushed for 550 yards, second on the team, and seven scores.
“I have no doubt that he’s the leader of that team,” Houston said of Cantwell. “He’s a great runner. He’s a physical runner. He’s 6-3, 220 pounds. So he’s a big guy. But they run a lot of quarterback designed runs, quarterback power, quarterback counter, a lot of things along that line. He’s done a great job throwing the ball. He’s thrown the ball for over 2,500 yards this year. So he’s the kind of guy that everything revolves around offensively.”
Weber State running back Treshawn Garrett has rushed for 698 yards and six touchdowns.
Weber State’s top receiver is tight end Andrew Vollert, who has 56 catches for 726 yards and five touchdowns. Houston said they like to move Vollert around and find different ways to get him the ball.
Wildcats’ wide receiver Drew Batchelor also has 47 receptions for 546 yards and eight touchdowns, while Rashid Shaheed has 24 catches for 521 yards and three scores.
Houston said special teams play will also be critical. Shaheed has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season, while Xequille Harry has one punt return for a score for the Wildcats.
Houston said Weber State coach Jay Hill and his staff like to use trick plays to throw their opponents off. He said Weber State has faked two field goals and three punts this season, and Cantwell has a pass reception on a trick play this season.
“They’ve done just a variety of things,’ Houston said. “They’re going to muddle huddle on the field goal unit. It’s just one of those things where it’s like New Hampshire plus some. As far as you’re going to see about everything in the book when it comes to the kicking game and offensively as far as different kinds of unusual plays. So it’s something that we’ve been working on. But really it’s going to force you to be sound. It’s going to force you to be disciplined. And as long as you’re sound and disciplined you should be OK with that stuff.”
Weber State’s only losses this season came to Football Bowl Subdivision opponent University of California-Berkeley (33-20) and Southern Utah (32-16). Last week, Weber State beat Southern Utah in a rematch, 30-13, in the second round of the FCS playoffs. The Wildcats have won six games in a row.
Houston said having to play today instead of Saturday, forced the Dukes to move their practice schedule around. Instead of having Monday as an off day, the team practiced every day this week. Houston said he made the practices a little shorter and told the players to make sure they were getting plenty of rest. Weber State, which is located in Ogden, Utah, arrived in the area on Wednesday night to prepare for the game. Houston said Weber State is a veteran team, and he didn’t expect the long travel to affect them.
The Dukes, the reigning FCS champions, have won 24 consecutive games.
JMU’s defense is led by redshirt senior defensive lineman Andrew Ankrah with 7.5 sacks. JMU redhsirt senior linebacker Kyre Hawkins has 85 tackles to lead the Dukes. JMU redshirt senior Jordan Brown leads the Dukes with seven interceptions.
The Dukes (12-0) are averaging 35.1 points and 419.3 yards per game. JMU senior quarterback Bryan Schor has thrown for 2,512 yards on 218-for-315 passing. He has 23 touchdown passes.
JMU junior running back Trai Sharp has rushed for 692 yards and four scores. JMU redshirt senior wide receiver Terrence Alls has 43 receptions for 535 yards and two scores.
Houston said JMU’s offense will be greatly challenged tonight against Weber State.
“I think that we will have to play as well as we’ve played all year on offense in order to have success,” Houston said. “Because this is kind of what they’ve hung their hat on all year is playing great defense and then being a sound, balanced offense. And that’s the reason they’re sitting here 11-2.”