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Villanova vs. James Madison preview: Dukes will try to ride momentum into the Mainline

James Madison heads to the Main Line after two straight wins. Can the Wildcats stop that momentum on Saturday?


With Parents Weekend ongoing, the Wildcats are expecting a packed house on Saturday when they host the James Madison Dukes on the gridiron. The unranked Dukes have a new coach, a new quarterback, and a new outlook. The program grew tremendously after a National Championship in 2004, but despite glistening new facilities, they still regressed in the past few years toward the middle of the pack. The new regime is charged with bringing the Dukes back.

Vad Lee is an interesting player for the Dukes. A transfer from Georgia Tech, he hardly fits the mold of others who have come from big-time programs to the CAA. After redshirting as a freshman in 2011, he received significant playing time in 2012, and started for the Yellow Jackets last year. Tech was extremely successful running the triple option with Lee taking the snaps -- he personally ran for 513 yards and passed for 1561 last season (with 19 touchdowns), and the unit finished fourth in the league for yards-per-play.

Normally, a successful starting quarterback in the ACC doesn't transfer, but Lee was reportedly looking to play in a different offense. While he remains unafraid to be a dual-threat,he wasn't a fan of the ultra-run-heavy triple-option sets that Georgia Tech imported from the Naval Academy when they hired Paul Johnson. JMU happened to hire the right coach at the right time to land him.

Now, instead of the triple-option, he is leading a read-option attack, and the results have been mixed. He didn't look his best at all while the Dukes were being steamrolled in their opener against Maryland, but improved the last two weeks against Lehigh and St. Francis.

Lee had two passing touchdowns in the each of the last two games and is averaging 7.4 ypc so far this season.

Even with Lee improving the JMU passing game, their rushing attack has been the real key to the offense so far, out-gaining their passing attack in each of three games. Other than Lee himself, running back-by-committee seems to be the plan for JMU, with Khalid Abdullah carrying the ball 20 times against Maryland, freshman John Miller getting the bulk of the work against Lehigh, and Juauan Latney working hardest last week -- the Dukes are clearly playing with the hot hand.

In the receiving game, the Dukes have spread it out a bit more. Daniel Brown, a 6-5 senior, seems to be the cream of the crop as far as catching passes is concerned. Brown emerged last season and is now working his way into Lee's acquaintance -- the two will look to continue that friendship tomorrow, and if Villanova allows them to, it could be a potent connection.

Villanova's defense could have their hands full with the Dukes, but the offense can certainly help things out. John Robertson and Poppy Livers are two of the better offensive players in the CAA right now, and the Wildcats' four-headed running game is a scary one for any defense to handle. Let alone JMU, who rank 9th out of 12 CAA teams for scoring defense, and 11th against the run.

Against the pass, JMU ranks fifth -- with freshman CB Jimmy Moreland leading the way. That could be an issue for Villanova, but the likely strategy will be to get the running game going first before going to the air. Villanova's passing game has also not be a high-risk style, with passes usually being shorter range, high-percentage looks that avoid the type of traps that a skilled CB will set.

The JMU defense overall has allowed 34 points per game, including 52 from Maryland, and clearly hasn't been as strong a unit as they were hoping entering the season.

The Dukes biggest issue is that they are a team in transition this season. Everything is new, they have played at least 15 freshmen so far, they have a new quarterback, new coaches, new offense and defense. They are bound to make some key mistakes, and that is where Villanova's experience may be an advantage -- can the 'Cats catch their mistake and exploit it?

Villanova's defense has been spectacular so far this season, allowing just 16.5 points per game, including their FBS bout with Syracuse. Their rushing defense has been third in the conference, and though the Dukes will challenge them in that department, Lee will be a similar challenge to what they faced with Fordham -- a very talented dual-threat quarterback with some tailback talent to back him up -- and the Rams managed just two field goals in week-two.

Statistics cannot tell the whole story this early in the season, however. Both of Villanova's opponents had blowout wins last weekend, which helps grow confidence that the 'Cats are for real, but matchups dictate wins and losses as much as anything else.

For JMU to win, they need to figure out how to beat Villanova's defense. For the Wildcats to win, they need to stay stout defensively and take advantage of a JMU defense that has looked porous against the running game. The 'Cats have the personnel to play that game too.

This will be the biggest challenge yet for the Wildcats, and with television cameras, instant replay, and a parents weekend crowd, the Main Line should be buzzing tomorrow afternoon.