James Madison has started off the season on a tear, entering this week after a narrow, shoot-out victory against Richmond, the Dukes are the only team that has not yet lost a conference game. Villanova, meanwhile, lost on the road at Richmond earlier this season, but has impressed otherwise. The 'Cats are coming off of a dominant performance against a streaking Maine team and have had one of the best defensive units out there this season.
Can the Wildcats stop the dynamic JMU offense?
To help us refresh our memories about JMU, we had Robb Abbot of JMUSportsBlog.com join us to answer some questions about the Dukes.
(1) Everett Withers had a short but successful tenure at JMU, how did fans feel about him moving on at the time? How has Mike Houston's success this season compared to your expectations 10 (or so) months ago?
A lot of fans didn't take it so well at first. They didn't like the way Withers made it pretty obvious he was simply treating JMU as a stepping stone, as he looked for the first FBS train out of town. It's tough to begrudge anyone jumping to make that sort of money, but we think Withers leaving for one of the worst jobs in FBS sort of stung. Personally, we think he did a great job injecting some excitement into a program that had grown a bit stale and we thank him for that. The truth is, he wasn't that great of an actual football coach, and JMU is probably better off with Houston (a better coach) leveraging all that excitement Withers created off the field, into more success on the field.
We had really high hopes for Houston, based on what he did at Citadel, and the resources he has available at JMU. We thought he'd eventually have JMU competing for CAA championships consistently, but didn't anticipate him getting off to a start like this one.
(2) JMU is scoring a ton this season, it's impressive that they have stayed so strong in the immediate post-Vad era. What are the keys to this Dukes' offense?
The offensive line play has been stellar, opening up huge holes for the running backs and keeping the pressure of QB Bryan Schor in the passing game. That in turn has given Schor a ton of confidence and helped accelerate his development. It also doesn't hurt that he's got an embarrassment of riches in terms of weapons. Khalid Abdullah and Cardon Johnson are a dangerous duo running the ball, and there are a number of talented receivers who can stretch the field, with 5 guys averaging more than 12 yards a catch.
(3) The Dukes' defense ranks pretty low in the league for points allowed. Do you consider that a fair assessment of that unit, or are the numbers deceiving?
It's a mixed bag. The defense was absolutely awful under Withers. It was just a mix of poor technique, lack of discipline, and a bad scheme. Houston and the new staff had a lot to fix and there nowhere near done. The stats show that there isn't a ton of improvement in terms of yards per play and points allowed. However, this year's defense has looked better at time. For one thing, they've actually been able to get off the field at times, holding opponents to a 37.7% conversion on 3rd downs. Not great, but far better than the team's 54% rate last season. It's also worth noting that much of the yardage and points were surrendered after the game was in hand. Still not great, but more indicative of a unit that can't put together a full 60 minutes, than a unit that's an overall disaster (like last season).
(4) We know all about Khalid Abdullah, JMU's ridiculous machine at tailback. Is Bryan Schor simply taking advantage of opponents fear of Abdullah, or is he a star in his own right?
He's pretty good. Coach Houston brought in South Carolina transfer Conor Mitch to compete with Schor over the summer. Reports are that Schor responded by stepping up his game and it turned out to not be much of a competition at all. Last year he played solid, but not spectacular football after Lee went down. We thought he had the potential to be decent, but didn't see this coming. He's got a great grasp of the offense and plays with great composure. His numbers aren't as eye-popping as Vad Lee's were, but he really been outstanding.
(5) JMU had a blocked FG and missed XP (we know all about that at VU Hoops) last week. How concerned are you about the kicking game, and would JMU ever just start going for it on 4th down instead (like Nova did, in the John Robertson years)?
We're concerned. It's been an issue throughout the season, not just last week. If we were in charge, yes, JMU would just go for 2 more (or always). Our gut tells us that Houston is going to try to build the kid's confidence by continuing to give him chances.
(6) We hear you guys are getting a new basketball arena ... that must be nice?
That's the plan. We will gladly trade you the shiny new arena delivered on date TBD for that little thing you call a National Championship though. Heck, we'd probably trade it for your out-of-conference schedule.