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Villanova Football game preview: No. 2 James Madison Dukes

A top 5 showdown between two top teams in the CAA, a soldout crowd—Saturday should be interesting.

NCAA Football: James Madison at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t get any bigger than this for Villanova in the regular season. The Wildcats will take on James Madison, who has been the top dog in the CAA in recent history.

The No. 5-ranked Wildcats come into the game 6-0. They had a bit of a scare last week against William and Mary, but held on for a 35-28 road victory over the Tribe.

They’ll receive another tough test on the road, as they hope to replicate another winning result, this time against the Dukes. James Madison was put on upset alert by Stony Brook, but managed to win in overtime, 45-38.

The Dukes have only one loss this year and that was against FBS school West Virginia. James Madison lost to the Mountaineers, 20-13, after being all tied up heading into the fourth quarter.

Here are three things to watch for in Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 1:30 p.m. ET:

Lots of Fireworks

When the two highest-scoring offenses in the CAA meet up, you can certainly expect a shootout and lots of big plays. Both teams have had their fair share of high-scoring games and coming out on top, with Villanova outlasting Towson on the road in overtime. James Madison did the same with Stony Brook last week.

Of the 126 FCS football teams, both James Madison and ‘Nova are in an exclusive club of less than a dozen teams that have scored over 30 touchdowns this season. James Madison currently leads the conference by scoring 41.2 points per game, while ‘Nova is right behind with 39.5 points per game. So far, in FCS competition, there hasn’t been any signs of stopping or slowing down offensively for either team. They’ve been able to do what they want, whether it be through the air or on the ground. Both teams are near the top in a variety of CAA statistical categories and with numbers like that, it should be fun to see what happens on Saturday.

Defensively, both teams are similar performance-wise. Although James Madison has the slight edge, the two teams are second and third in the CAA in scoring defense. However, don’t be surprised if it comes down to which team has the firepower to outduel the other. Villanova’s defense didn’t really stop the strong Towson offense, and James Madison hasn’t faced a FCS team performing this well offensively.

Covington Watch

Justin Covington seemed unstoppable on the ground, eclipsing the 100-yard rushing mark in every game--until last week’s win against William and Mary. The redshirt junior running back finished the game with 53 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, before his day was ended preemptively with an ankle injury. His status is still uncertain, although head coach Mark Ferrante has said he’s not too optimistic, he will wait and see. Covington has been the key to helping keep the Villanova offense balanced.

If he is unavailable, the Wildcats will be using a rotation of Jalen Jackson, T.D. Ayo-Durojaiye, and DeeWil Barlee. Although Covington was limited and unable to surpass the 100-yard mark, the trio was able to achieve it as a collective unit. Altogether, they combined for 116 yards on 23 carries. Barlee led the trio with 52 yards and a touchdown. If the game does become a high-scoring contest, it will help having the option to switch around and keep players’ legs fresh. It will be important to be able to diversify the attack and use a balanced approach against a juggernaut like James Madison.

The Wildcats have been a lot less one-dimensional this season, as opposed to the run-heavy approach the last few years, helping them produce at a much-improved rate on offense. A part of that is because of fewer injuries, but also a talented running back in Covington and quarterback Daniel Smith. The younger Wildcat running backs have each shown glimpses of making nice plays throughout the season, but the William and Mary game showed that they can certainly step things up.

They’ll need a repeat performance, but it won’t be easy, given the Dukes’ stout defense. James Madison has the top rushing defense in the CAA, holding opponents to just 71.2 rushing yards per game. Linebacker Dimitri Holloway leads the Dukes’ defensive unit. The fifth-year senior has been a tackling machine, racking up 50 tackles so far this season--almost doubling the next highest Duke, Adam Smith (26 tackles).

Mirror Images?

The Dukes and the Wildcats have a lot of similarities. Statistically, they’re both among the top in the conference. Defensively, they’ve both performed very well, outside of a few scares.

On offense, they both feature impact transfers at quarterback, with Smith leading the huddle for the ‘Cats, and Ben DiNucci enjoying another solid season after coming in from Pitt. Like Smith, DiNucci has the ability to scramble but can also stay in the pocket and nail some accurate passes. So far this season, he’s thrown for 1,284 yards, eight touchdowns, and two interceptions. He’s completed 72.4 percent of his passes. On the ground, he’s rushed for 277 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The James Madison quarterback also enjoys spreading the wealth among his receivers, with six different receivers tallying at least nine receptions and 100 yards. Nine different players have logged at least one touchdown reception. Brandon Polk is the Dukes’ top receiver and has big play ability. He’s caught a team-high 25 passes for 438 yards and three touchdowns. Also keep an eye out for Kyndel Dean and Jake Brown, who have at least a dozen receptions for 140 yards each.

On the ground, while the Dukes don’t have a workhorse like Covington, they have fared just fine going running back-by-committee. They have a trio of backs they like to lean on, with Percy Agyei-Obese, Solomon Vanhorse, and Jawon Hamilton accumulating similar numbers individually. Together, they combine for 1,030 yards and 15 touchdowns. They all get a similar number of touches per game, as well. It’s a tough offense to prepare for, with everyone playing some sort of part in keeping the ball moving.

For Villanova, Ferrante has actually credited the Wildcats being able to spread the wealth as one of the reasons they have been so successful, making it hard for opponents to predict and gameplan for them. Now, Villanova will be faced with that challenge in trying to slow down the Dukes. With a soldout crowd, a top-five matchup, this game should be very interesting.