Things didn't go so well for Villanova against the CAA's two northernmost programs, and now they will have to bounce back from consecutive losses to New Hampshire and Maine this weekend. Since the turn of the millennium, James Madison (5-3, 2-2) has fielded one of the strongest and best-funded programs in the CAA. Villanova, however, has won three of the last five meetings between the two programs, and comes into the contest ranked 20th in the country.
James Madison has not yet lost at home this season, beating Central Connecticut, St. Francis (PA), Charlotte, Albany and Richmond in the comfortable confines of Bridgeforth Stadium. They have struggled on the road, however, losing a defensive struggle at William & Mary last weekend, and suffering a losses in Newark, Delaware and at MAC program Akron early in the season.
At 5-3, however, the Dukes still have playoff hopes, and a win over Villanova could solidify their argument for inclusion, especially with trips to New Hampshire and Towson looming.
Villanova's offense looks set for any challenger. They lead the CAA in rushing with an average of 242.6 yards per game and 1,576 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground in just the last six games. The Wildcats are also the only CAA program with a pass-completion percentage higher than 70-percent.
John Robertson, Villanova's super-sophomore quarterback, surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the season (over 2,000 for his career) last week -- a feat that took him all of 2012 to accomplish -- and has rushed for over 200 yards in each of the last two games, setting a Villanova record (he also joins Brian Westbrook as the only Villanovan to record more than one 1,000-yard season). Whether or not Robertson can continue to keep Villanova in close games without much help is a question that remains, but it may be best to avoid testing the theory this weekend, against a JMU defense that features NFL-bound linebacker Stephon Robertson.
Where Villanova absolutely must improve this weekend is on defense. The Dukes' offense is strong, with Dae'Quan Scott averaging 100-yards per game on the ground and quarterback Michael Birdsong averaging 222.8 yards in the air, the Wildcats' opponents are more than capable of generating offense to the tune of 412.2 yards per game. That is just slightly over the 400.2 yards that Villanova's defense has allowed its opponents this season.
Scott may not play this weekend after suffering an ankle injury, but the Dukes offense doesn't end with the program's all-time leading scorer. Though Khalid Abdullah averages just 46.6 yards per game on the ground, his 5.2 yards per carry have eclipsed Scott so far this season.
Daniel Brown is the top target in the passing game for JMU, averaging 17.5 yards per catch and 64.9 yards per game, the receiver has established himself as a threat and should be getting attention from the Villanova secondary. Even so, Birdsong appears content and capable to spread the ball around the field, rather than honing in on one key receiver, so a strong pass-defense all-around will be key to slowing the Dukes.
Defensive injuries have contributed to those struggles, but the Wildcats haven't looked sharp at all against strong passing defenses, while rushing defense has come back to earth after an impressive start to the season. Both of those areas will have to improve this week. The Wildcats have especially struggled lately in getting third-down stops. allowing opponents a conversion rate of about 50%.
Villanova's defense looked slugging at the end of the New Hampshire game and came out equally-soft against Maine at the start of last weekend's homecoming game. There will be little room for such error on Saturday, however.
Offensively, Robertson will have to look sharp, and though some of his top receivers will be missing, the 'Cats still have Poppy Livers working out of the slot, tall outside receiver Clay Horne, and Kevin Gulyas for Robertson to work with, along with the tight end Earnest Pettway. It is time for the sophomore quarterback to work in these targets in the passing game, to buy the Wildcats some first downs and to buy himself some breathing room in the running game.
Similarly, if the JMU defense is bearing down on Robertson as a runner, the 'Cats can always do a better job of spreading the rushing touches out to Kevin Monangai, Austin Medley and Javon White. Last week's nine rushing attempts among those tailbacks was not enough to set up the option for Villanova.
Defensively, Villanova needs to stop the run first, since it is clear that JMU has worked to establish the run early in games to help Birdsong along as a passer. Taking away that aspect of their gameplan will likely be easier for Nova than relying on the secondary to stick to receivers like glue. Instead, the secondary should be able to rely on pressure up front to give them time to work and help create turnovers and big plays.