Villanova faced JMU early last season, and the Wildcats were probably lucky to catch JMU before Vad Lee had fully settled into the Dukes offense. The ex-Georgia Tech starting quarterback transferred to the Virginia school to play in an offense that actually passed the ball, and against Villanova he proved he could do it -- passing for 406 yards in a high-scoring game.
The Wildcats needed a spectacular game from John Robertson to knock off JMU last year, 49-31. After both star quarterbacks were sidelined with injuries this season, the 'Cats return trip to Harrisonburg will be a much different game for both schools.
To help us refresh our memories about JMU, we had Todd Davis of JMUSportsBlog.com join us to answer some questions about the Dukes.
(1) What were your initial thoughts about life post-Vad Lee when you first heard the news? How has reality compared?
Oddly, the initial news wasn't quite as crushing as it might have been because Bryan Schor had come into a huge game against Richmond on Gameday-Day and looked like the real deal in leading two TD drives in the 4th quarter. The really crushing thing that day was just the letdown of losing to the hated Ticks after the high of Gameday. Afterwards, I think we were as hurt for Vad Lee himself, who has by all indications shown himself to be an even better person than football player during his time at JMU, as we were for the season, the team, or the danger of not being as good. Gotta imagine it was pretty similar to the Robertson news.
(2) This game was supposed to be the CAA "saving the best for last" but Villanova had a mighty struggle after John Robertson was injured. Still, a CAA title could be on the line. Has the excitement for this game diminished at all?
Hard to say only because it's likely nothing (probably not even winning a championship) can match the high of the week JMU hosted Gameday. But generally, it's probably fair to say it's slightly diminished only because the stakes from JMU's side are likely not as high. JMU may have an outside chance at a seed, but they need help, so I think most fans assume we'll host a first-round game (based on our bid last year) next week whether the Dukes win or lose this week and JMU can't win the auto-bid. Mainly it's just the difference between where our fans were heading into the UR game (pretty sure our ceiling was a National Championship) and the way they're just nervous to find out if we can even make a run now. That said, in some ways it's bigger stakes than it might have been with VU fighting to stay alive and JMU potentially fighting to get back into the seed/bye discussion.
One last note on this front - JMU students have the whole week off for Thanksgiving (coddled millennials again) these days and they know a playoff home game the next week is likely so it's hard to imagine the atmosphere at Bridgeforth Stadium will be quite what it might've been.
(3) JMU seems to rely on a potent offense to win games, ranking high in the league in all of those categories, while their defense is ranked much lower. How (and who) will the Dukes look to stop Villanova's run-heavy offense?
Prayer mainly. Honestly, we have no idea.
It's strange because our ILB Kyre Hawkins makes a TON of tackles and most of our safeties step up in the run game all right, but JMU has just been blown off the ball in their 3-4 alignment so much this season. The Dukes rotate their D-Linemen a lot which allegedly keeps them fresh, but you will likely notice a better chance at making stops when NT Simeyon Robinson is in the game. For some reason our other ILB Gage Steel has been in the doghouse lately with coaches, but he can really make tackles too.
(4) How has JMU's scheme changed to accommodate Schorr (sp?) taking the snaps the last few weeks?
The Dukes basically ran the exact same offense, with only a slight drop in efficiency, in Schor's first start at William & Mary as they did previously with Vad Lee at QB. The team mixed the run and the pass the same way it had all season, getting the ball into the hands of its many weapons. It played at a slightly slower pace, but was essentially using the same fast paced scheme. And the unit managed to rack up 460 yards of total offense against one of the CAA's toughest defenses.
It looked as if the team was poised to continue scoring in bunches as it had all season. Then last week against Delaware happened. Whether it was due to an off week, a particularly well played game by the Blue Hen D, or something else entirely, JMU struggled (relatively) on offense. The Dukes managed to score only 24 points, but still squeaked out a win.
The primary difference seemed to be the inability to counter Delaware's pass rush, which disrupted Schor and threw the entire offense's timing off. Withers is a stubborn coach, so we don't expect any drastic changes to the approach on offense, but we wouldn't be shocked to see some more screens or quick passes to counter the pass rush on Saturday. Otherwise, he'll continue to have JMU try to force the pace and wear out the D.
(5) What was it like for JMU fans to see College Gameday make an appearance on campus?
It was epic.
General interest in the program ticked up in the weeks leading up to Gameday coming simply based on the fact that Lee Fitting (the executive producer) actually admitted that JMU was under consideration. From that point on the excitement just escalated. Once it was official and everyone knew Gameday was coming, things sort of went nuts.
ESPN seemed pretty shocked by the reception they got every step of the way, from the students packing the crowd for the arrival of the Gameday bus on Thursday, to the numbers showing up for all the Friday broadcasts, to the insane crowd for Gameday itself on Saturday. It was really great to see how all of the various ESPN staffers and personalities seemed genuinely blown away by the way JMU turned out for the experience. It was an absolute blast for us to be there and nearly as much fun to see all of the excitement it created amongst alums on Twitter, Facebook, etc. The entire thing actually exceeded our expectations. The game on the other hand...