HARRISONBURG — The Colonial Athletic Association outright title is on the line for James Madison University today.
The Dukes play at Elon University at noon, and a JMU win will give them back-to-back outright conference titles. Two years ago, the Dukes won a share of the title.
Elon and Stony Brook still have a shot at a share of the title with a JMU loss.
“(The JMU players) understand what this game means this week, and I don’t think the stage is too big for them,” JMU head football coach Mike Houston said.
The Dukes (10-0, 7-0 CAA) drove 71 yards for the game-winning touchdown last week in the final minutes to beat the University of Richmond, 20-13. Houston said the Dukes ability to win close games and handle pressure situations stems from winning the Football Championship Subdivision national championship last year.
“They understood that we needed to drive down and win in a huge ballgame,” Houston said of last week’s win. “And at the same time it’s not like they went out there uptight or nervous or anything like that. They went out there with just the mindset of we’re going to get this done and then they went about doing their jobs at a high level.”
Elon will present another tough challenge for the Dukes. The Phoenix have had a big turnaround under first-year coach Curt Cignetti.
The Phoenix (8-2, 6-1 CAA) were 2-9 last year, but have taken off under Cignetti. Houston said he’s been impressed with how much the team has improved.
“I think this is a team that probably culture-wise and philosophy-wise with the way they practice and the way they go about things are probably very similar to what we try to be,” Houston said. “Because you watch them and they play hard and they play very physical. So that’s something that I didn’t think was apparent a year ago.”
Elon is led by quarterback Cheek Davis, who has thrown for 2,105 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Elon running back De’Sean McNair has rushed for 509 yards, most of which came after replacing Malcolm Summers in the starting lineup. Summers suffered a season-ending injury in the sixth game of the year.
The Phoenix have three receivers with 20 or more receptions this season. Kortez Weeks leads the way with 52 catches for 664 yards and two scores. Tre Lennon has 35 receptions for 468 yards and two touchdowns, and Corey Joyner has 23 catches for 412 yards and one touchdown for the Phoenix.
“I think they have a variety of weapons at receiver,” Houston said. “They have a couple of guys that can really stretch the field. They have Weeks there in the slot– the quick little guy much like (JMU’s) John Miller that makes a lot of plays, runs the jet sweep does things like that. Their tight ends are great blockers. So it’s really a solid offense. And I think that we’re going to be challenged, maybe as much as we have all year, from a physicality and just being able to stop them standpoint defensively.”
Elon’s Warren Messer leads the way defensively with 96 tackles and 5.5 sacks, while Chris Blair has 72 tackles and two sacks.
Elon uses a 3-3-stack defense, much like the one Villanova runs. Houston said it’s good that the Dukes have seen that type of defense before.
“They’ve got a big, physical defensive line,” Houston said. “Their linebackers are extremely active in the secondary. Blair is a very physical safety, a big hitter that’s involved a lot in the run game. And I think they’re doing a great job on that side of the football of making people work for everything they get.”
Houston said the Dukes are probably as healthy as they have been since the first game of the season and that will surely help in such a pivotal game.
The Dukes have won 22 straight games and are ranked No. 1 in both FCS polls. A win against Elon will likely give the Dukes the top seed in the FCS playoffs, which start next week. The playoff pairings will be announced at 11 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
Sharp leads JMU’s running game with 618 yards and four touchdowns. JMU quarterback Bryan Schor has thrown for 2,043 yards and 21 touchdowns. Wide receiver David Eldridge has 28 receptions for 390 yards and four scores.
JMU’s defense is allowing only 9.6 points per contest. Linebacker Kyre Hawkins has 67 tackles and seven sacks. Safety Jordan Brown has six interceptions to lead the Dukes.
Houston said one thing his team does really well is handle the pressure of playing in a big game and staying focused on what’s important.
“They know this is for the conference championship,” Houston said. “This is probably for the No. 1 seed in the national playoffs. They know it’s for home field advantage. They know all those things. But for them their focus is not on those things. For them their focus is on beating Elon or trying to beat Elon. That’s their focus. And I think that’s what it’s got to be.”