With two FCS losses already, Villanova will need to end their homestand with a big win over a ninth-ranked James Madison team this weekend to get to seven wins and keep their playoff hopes alive. The 'Cats will look to bounce back from a loss to Towson two weeks ago to pick up a seventh win on the season — normally the minimum needed to secure a playoff bid (though eight may be required this year).
James Madison is coming off of a blow-out victory at Maine last weekend, winning 31-7 over the 3-6 Black Bears. JMU's biggest win this season was a 13-10 victory over Towson, a week after the tigers took on top-ranked FBS opponent, LSU.
On offense, the Dukes are more of a rushing team than passing, ranking eighth in the CAA in passing offense with 192.1 yards per game (Villanova ranks ninth) and third in the league in rushing offense with 226.1 yards per game (Villanova ranks first with 253.9). In scoring offense, the Dukes are just one spot ahead of the 'Cats at fourth, with 29.9 points per game.
At the same time, the Dukes defense has been very strong, ranking first in scoring defense (Villanova ranks second) and rushing defense. They are also ranked fourth against the passing game.
The Dukes will likely start redshirt junior quarterback Justin Thorpe on Saturday, rather than freshman Michael Birdsong. Head coach Mickey Matthews had went to Birdsong after the Dukes' first loss in an attempt to bolster the passing game, but the freshman is out this week with an injury. Thorpe isn't as strong a passer as Birdsong, but he is one of the CAA's top rushers and will help lead a very strong running game.
Thorpe is 6th in the conference in total offense, generating 224 yards per game.
Their rushing game is lead by junior tailback Dae'Quan Scott, who has averaged 99.3 yards per game and 8 touchdowns — the second best mark in the league. He is also number-two in the CAA for all-purpose yardage this season and second to Towson's Terrance West for scoring (9.4 points per game).
Defensively, both Villanova and JMU have two players with three interceptions each on the season, tying for fourth-place in the CAA football conference. JMU linebacker Stephon Robertson is fourth in the league in tackles with 9.2 per game this season.
Villanova will look to stop the run against James Madison and hope to get sufficient pressure into the backfield to prevent the Dukes from getting anything going in the passing game either. Villanova is among the CAA's top teams in sacks, though they struggled to create pressure against Richmond and Towson, who have given up the fewest sacks in the league (Richmond has allowed just one all season), and JMU comes in at third in the CAA, allowing 12 sacks.
The 'Cats may need to alter their defensive formations on passing downs to bring more pressure and help collapse the pocket. Thorpe isn't a great passer, but given enough time to work, he will be able to get comfortable working against the Villanova secondary.
Offensively, Villanova will be pitting it's league-best running game against a JMU defense designed to stop the run. Kevin Monangai has seemed unstoppable at picking up yardage at times this season and John Robertson's speed can often lead to big plays on the ground as well. In order to keep the running game going, however, the 'Cats are going to have to make some key passes.
Norman White is suffering from a partial shoulder injury as well as an MCL injury he picked up against Towson. Despite this, the 'Cats will need the big, athletic target to take the field this week and draw his usual coverage to help the passing game. Robertson will have to find his other receivers downfield, wideout Joe Price and tight end Earnest Pettway should both be beneficiaries of that added attention and Poppy Livers and Dorian Wells could also be key in the slot.
Playing smart and making good passes will be important. The JMU defense has not generated many sacks, and shouldn't put too much pressure on Robertson in the backfield, but their secondary is capable of picking off an errant throw as well. If they can efficiently throw the ball downfield, the secondary should back off enough to allow Monangai and Robertson to do work on the ground.
Villanova will have their hands full with the JMU defense, but the Wildcat's should be capable of moving the chains. If they can get into the red zone, they should be able to punch the ball in against a red zone defense that rates eighth out of eleven in the CAA — Villanova, meanwhile has the third-best red zone offense.
With both teams working offensively off of their running game and sporting strong rushing defenses, the winner will likely be the team that holds on to the ball the longest. Villanova will need to convert on third downs and go on long drives to take the advantage in that department.
Villanova has had an extra week to prepare for this game, and if the coaching staff has done their job, they should be rested and ready to execute on a smart game plan.