Must-Win Time

Posted: November 16, 2013

HARRISONBURG — The story-line today is simple: It is imperative that the James Madison football team win its final two regular-season games if it hopes to have a chance at a Division I-AA playoff berth.

Coach Mickey Matthews, on the verge of missing the postseason for the fourth time in five years, is aware of this heading into today’s 3:30 p.m. Colonial Athletic Association game against Stony Brook (3-6 overall, 1-6 in the CAA) at Bridgeforth Stadium.

“We need to win the last two games and go from there,” Matthews said this week after the Dukes (6-4, 3-3) played ugly and lost 33-17 to New Hampshire last week. “… We need to play better. It was the first time this year that I was disappointed in how well we played. I mean, how hard we played. I even asked the guys [Sunday] what could have gotten in our heads.”

As important as it is for JMU to win, it might be just as important for other Colonial playoff contenders to lose.

The Dukes will be rooting for Richmond to win out and beat two CAA competitors for at-large berths: Delaware (7-3, 4-2) and William & Mary (7-3, 4-2). It would be good for JMU if the Blue Hens can lose out and then have the Tribe beat Towson (8-2, 4-2) before losing to Richmond — which at 4-6, 2-4 is out of the playoff race — next week. The Dukes, of course, would then need to beat Towson to perhaps persuade the NCAA selection committee to award them a playoff slot.

New Hampshire (5-4, 4-2) also can help Madison by dropping at least one of its next two games: Albany (1-9, 0-6) this week or Maine (9-1, 6-0) next week. Maine likely already has clinched a postseason bid.

Thirteen schools will receive at-large berths in the 24-team playoffs.

For JMU to potentially be one of them,  it probably will need better play from an abused secondary — it gets starting boundary cornerback Kwe’Shon Williams back today from a concussion — and what has been at times a disappointing offensive line. The Dukes have allowed a CAA-worst 28 sacks despite starting all juniors and seniors, including right tackle Josh Wells, who is considered an NFL prospect.

Stony Brook, a first-year CAA team, has been competitive in the league. The Seawolves led Maine 14-13 until late in the fourth quarter in a 19-14 loss Nov. 2. Last week, Stony Brook led Richmond 31-25 until the Spiders took the lead with 8:59 to play to eventually win 39-31.

The Seawolves moved from the middling Big South — where they won at least a share of four straight conference titles — to the muscular Colonial this season, and eighth-year coach Chuck Priore said the CAA is everything he thought it’d be and more.

“I would say it’s what we expected from the perspective that I knew every game would be competitive,” said Priore, whose team made it to the second round of the I-AA playoffs for a second straight year last season, beating Villanova in the first round before losing to Montana State. “I knew it would be fourth-quarter games every game, and that’s probably the one thing we haven’t done a good job of as a program is playing the full four quarters. We’ve lost three games in the fourth quarter, where we were winning, and you can’t be losing games that you’re winning.”

 Stony Brook, a 24,500-student public school founded on Long Island in 1957, ranks near the bottom of the 11-team CAA in most offensive categories.

The Seawolves are ninth in scoring offense (20 points per game), 10th in rushing offense (144.8 yards per game), eighth in pass offense (190 ypg) and ninth in total offense (334.8 ypg). But Stony Brook has been respectable on defense, limiting opponents to 22.3 ppg (sixth in the CAA) and 318 ypg, which is second-best in the CAA, trailing only William & Mary’s 293.7 ypg. The Seawolves are also second in pass defense, allowing just 318.3 ypg.

“Our defensive philosophy is to make sure we the extra person in the box to defend the run,” said Prior, who spent 1992-99 as the offensive coordinator at Pennsylvania. “And you’ve got to be able to tackle and make the stops you need. And I think we’ve been able to be, for the most part, good tacklers.”

Matthews said a key to SBU’s success on defense has been the team’s size, something the 15th-year coach stressed repeatedly for about a minute at his weekly press conference. The Seawolves also take a lot of I-A transfers — 11 are listed on their roster.

But that size will, Priore said, have to contend with JMU’s athleticism. The Dukes are widely lauded by coaches, in the CAA and out, for their athletes. Priore called them the best in the conference.

For some reason, those athletes in recent seasons haven’t been enough to keep Madison in the playoffs. Since 2009, the Dukes have been out more than they’ve been in.

Priore said he didn’t know what the issue was.

“I probably don’t watch film from that perspective,” he said. “I don’t always analyze what they’re doing. I’m just trying to analyze what we can do against them. I see a good football team that’s well-coached, and this sport is a game of opportunities and breaks, and sometimes you just don’t make the plays when you need to make them. A play or two can define the outcome of a game, and it’s probably what’s happened to them over the course of their losses.”

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