Dukes Feel Dissed

Downgraded Nationally, JMU Still Big Favorite Today

Posted: August 31, 2013

HARRISONBURG — Josh Wells arrived at James Madison in 2009, the year after the Dukes’ football team, led by star quarterback Rodney Landers and a potent offense, went to the Division I-AA semifinals. It was five years after JMU had won the national championship.

Since that national title, the expectations for JMU’s program have been high, both inside the locker room and out. Last year, the Dukes were ranked fifth in The Sports Network’s preseason Top 25, and in 2011, Madison rechristened Bridgeforth Stadium after $62.5 million worth of upgrades that made the venue one of the best in I-AA.

But this season is different.

In the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll, voted on by league coaches and sports information directors, JMU was picked to finish unusually low: fifth. In TSN’s poll, Madison is ranked 19th, and the outlet, which covers I-AA seriously, projected JMU to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

“It was different. Definitely felt weird,” JMU junior free safety Dean Marlowe said of the lack of media affection. “’Cause in the past years I’ve been here, we’ve always been high, and it’s something new for me.”

The Dukes, who open the 2013 season today at home against Central Connecticut State at 6 p.m.,  still feel like they’re an elite I-AA program, despite the less-than-elite prognostications.

“It’s almost disrespectful to everybody because you do come to this school to be on top,” said Wells, a 6-foot-5, 310-pound redshirt senior offensive tackle and an NFL prospect. “... We need to prove ourselves. You can’t hate the people that put us in at that, but it’s just time for us to prove them wrong.”

There are indications that people haven’t totally quit on JMU. In the CAA poll, the Duke got four first-place votes, second only to the 11 received by Villanova, the projected league champ. JMU also is ranked 15th in the I-AA coaches’ poll. But the lack of media hype is strange for the Madison players. Marlowe said he felt low-balled.

“A little bit,” the Dukes’ all-conference defensive back said. “It’s just, coming off last season — how we were 5-1 and No. 2 in the country at one point, and how it just went down, and people just say, you know, ‘James Madison isn’t really that good.’ We take that — every practice we go into — we take that to heart.”

Central Connecticut State coach Jeff McInerney doesn’t think the Dukes, who went 7-4 last season and 2-3 in the last five games, have slipped. He just hopes his Blue Devils — who went 2-8 last year after starting 0-5 — can keep the game looking like competitive football.

“I think that it’s just we’re functional, and when people watch the game, they say, ‘Yeah, that looks like [football],’” the eighth-year coach said of his goals. “And [JMU is] very capable of being very, very explosive — and that’s the scary side of it.”

The last time CCSU played JMU was in 2011, and the Devils lost only 14-9 and trailed only 7-3 in the fourth quarter. It’s a game the Madison coach Mickey Matthews hasn’t forgotten.

“They have some very good players,” said Matthews, entering his 15th season with only one year left on his contract (it expires after the 2014 season). “I think anyone who went to the game two years ago — I always tell my players I’m too nice to them — I thought we absolutely stunk up the place on both sides of the ball.”

Wells and Marlowe both said it was important the Dukes not do that this season. Wells also said it was important that Madison set a tone with the first game, which would mean taking advantage of a clearly overmatched opponent.

CCSU’s defense ranked 110th out of 121 I-AA teams last season, and the Devils’ league, the Northeast Conference, allows its teams only 40 scholarship. I-AA schools are permitted 63 by the NCAA, and JMU uses all of them.

“It will go really far,” Wells said of a strong opening-day performance. “Like I was saying, it’s not who we’re playing; it’s us getting into a rhythm. Our defense has always stepped up and been fine in games and everything, and the offense has kind of struggled the past couple years. But [we] made a lot of changes, and it’s gonna be how well we can get in a rhythm.”

In the offseason, Matthews fired offensive coordinator Jeff Durden and offensive line coach Chris Malone and replaced them with Virginia Tech castoffs Mike O’Cain (the new OC) and Curt Newsome (the new O-line coach). Both are experienced coaches. O’Cain is the former head coach at North Carolina State, and Newsome coached JMU’s O-line during the national title run in 2004.

For a while in the offseason, it looked like Madison would become Air Mickey, but efforts to hire passing-game guru Hal Mumme feel through at the last minute. Matthews then turned to O’Cain, who has brought what has been sold as a fast-paced and balanced offense. It will replace the run-based shotgun option spread of Durden. Today also will be the first game of the Michael Birdsong Era at quarterback. Birdsong is a strong-armed true sophomore for whom the coaches have big expectations.

Central Connecticut also has a new-ish offense. McInerney said the Blue Devils are getting back to a more balanced approach after leaning hard on the option over the past couple of seasons. He said CCSU ran a more pro-style offense in 2009 and 2010, when it won back-to-back NEC championships.

This year’s offense is led by junior running back Rob Holloman, a 5-8, 170-pound transfer from Kent State. He led the NEC in rushing and all-purpose yards in 2012 and was a third-team preseason TSN All-American.

McInerney said his offense still will be about one third option.

“We’re not going to sit there and try to block [JMU’s defense] up on everything and let them peel our ears back and let them overwhelm us and go over the wall,” McInerney said. “It wouldn’t be fun. It’d be fun for you. It’d be fun for JMU, but it wouldn’t be fun for us.”

NOTE: Matthews said he expects defensive end Tyler Snow (groin) and wide receiver Daniel Brown (hamstring), both starters, to miss today’s game due to injury. Also out are safety Daniel Allen (hamstring), and defensive linemen Josh Hogan (hamstring) and Justin Baker (knee).

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