CAA Race Already Heating Up
Posted: October 12, 2013
HARRISONBURG — Members of the Richmond and James Madison football teams took turns this week — on the radio, in newspapers, on Twitter — expressing their mutual dislike.
The rivalry between the two programs goes back years, fueled by overlapping recruiting — many players on both teams had scholarship offers from both schools — past close games and a history of matchups that helped decide a team’s shot at a conference championship or Division I-AA playoff appearance.
Today’s 3:30 p.m. contest at JMU’s Bridgeforth Stadium has all of that, with the No. 21 Dukes (4-2 overall, 1-1 in the CAA) and Richmond (2-3, 0-1) needing a victory to take some of the pressure off their upcoming Colonial games. A team with two conference losses probably wouldn’t be eliminated from playoff contention, but two losses this early in the season would be ominous.
“We just can’t lose anymore,” JMU free safety Dean Marlowe said about the matchup, which will be broadcast nationally on the NBC Sports Network cable channel. “For us to win a CAA championship, we can’t lose at all. … A lot of teams in our conference are just tough. It’s like you never know what to expect, especially with the game from last week with Delaware and Maine. Things just happen in this conference.”
Maine, a surprise team, thumped Delaware 62-38 — just one week after the Blue Hens beat JMU 29-22.
“I even think, if you get two losses, you’re still in it,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. “I think if you get a third loss, you’re still in the playoff hunt. I just think that’s how close it’s going to be. … I think it’s going to be a long conference race.”
This game is important enough that Matthews, typically forthcoming with injury news, stopped updating his wounded this week, not wanting to give the Spiders an advantage.
JMU hasn’t won a CAA title since 2008 and has missed the playoffs three out of the past four seasons. The Spiders won a share of the league championship last season but got squeezed out of a bid to the then 20-team playoffs. The playoffs have expanded to 24 teams starting this season.
Richmond has lost three of its last four games and fallen out of The Sports Network’s I-AA Top 25. The Spiders were off last week after losing 28-21 to Maine on Sept. 28.
The loss continued a theme for UR: losing on the last play of the game. Against the Bears, UR quarterback Michael Strauss threw an interception on first-and-goal at the 5-yard line with just over 20 seconds to play.
Against Gardner-Webb on Sept. 14, Richmond missed a 43-yard field goal as time expired to lose 12-10, and in a 23-21 loss to North Carolina State on Sept. 7, Strauss couldn’t complete a 37-yard Hail Mary to receiver Stephen Barnette. That ended the game.
“We’re not a 2-3 team. We’re a lot better than that. We just haven’t been able to close out the game,” Strauss said. “...We’re a few plays away from being 5-0. We just haven’t been able to close out games, late in the game, and that’s what’s been happening this year, and we’re hoping to turn that around this weekend.”
Matthews also said the Spiders, who lead the all-time series 17-13, are better than their 2-3 record. UR has, statistically, the CAA’s best quarterback with Strauss, a right-handed junior and University of Virginia transfer, and two of the conference’s top receivers: Ben Edwards and Stephen Barnette, who had nine catches for 144 yards and a touchdown in UR’s 35-29 win over JMU last year at Robins Stadium.
That was Strauss’ first start as a Spider. It also was Madison quarterback’s Michael Birdsong first significant appearance. The then-true freshmen relieved the benched Justin Thorpe and went 11-of-122 for 159 yards a touchdown while running for 73 yards on seven carries and nearly leading the Dukes, ranked No. 2 in I-AA at the time, back from an 18-point deficit.
It was the most recent of numerous memorable meetings. Today’s could be another.
“I do think it’s going to be a game of momentum swings,” Richmond coach Danny Rocco said. “I do think that both teams will be counter-punching, and you’re going to want to have momentum at the key moments of the game, which could be at the end of the half or even the end of the game, to try to find a way to secure a victory.”
JMU and Richmond are 5-5 against each other since 2004, and a team hasn’t won back-to-back meetings since JMU in 2003 and 2004. The Dukes lost three straight from 2000-02, and the last time a team won more than three was when Madison won five straight from 1987-91.
A key battle today will between Richmond’s passing offense and the Dukes’ secondary, which may be without cornerback Kwe’Shon Williams (groin) for a second straight game. The Spiders’ air attack ranks 14th in the 122-team I-AA, averaging 296.8 yards a game. JMU’s secondary is young and has been prone to giving up big plays all season, even if its numbers are respectable. Madison ranks fifth in pass defense in the 11-team CAA, allowing 195 yards per game. It ranks 40th in I-AA.