All involved have their own moments and reasons that stand above the rest.
This type of matchup usually lends itself to those memories as No. 2 James Madison and rival Richmond meet for the 37th time on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Harrisonburg.
“It’s special to me not only because I’m from the Richmond area,” JMU senior center Mac Patrick said, “but also because I know a lot of kids on that team. I played against ‘em in high school and that rivalry transfers over to the college level, and then we’ve played them in emotional games every single year.”
A win for the Dukes (9-1, 6-0 Colonial Athletic Association) gives them the outright conference crown for the third time in four years. But en route to CAA titles in 2016 and 2017, their most competitive regular-season bouts came against the Spiders. Richmond (5-5, 4-2 CAA) is also hoping an upset victory this time around would push them toward a postseason berth of their own.
“It’s a great rivalry,” said third-year Richmond coach Russ Huesman, who also experienced five years of it as a Spiders assistant from 2004 through 2008. “It was a great rivalry the last time I was here as a defensive coordinator. It’s always exciting to play James Madison and I hope on their end they feel the same way that it is a rivalry.”
Before last year’s 63-10 runaway win for JMU, the previous three meetings were all decided by 10 points or fewer.
In 2017, the Dukes needed a rushing touchdown from former running back Trai Sharp in the final minute to escape with a 20-13 win. The year prior, former tight end Jonathan Kloosterman hauled in a scoring grab with 1:36 to play to help JMU win 47-43.
“The game my sophomore year,” Patrick recalled, “when Trai and all of us marched down the field and scored. We had problems the entire game running the ball and getting momentum, but [former quarterback Bryan] Schor came to us and said, ‘We’re going to score here,’ and we believed in him and ourselves and I’ll always remember that game.”
Spiders senior defensive end Maurice Jackson said the 2015 game, a 59-49 win for Richmond at Bridgeforth Stadium, is most memorable for him.
“I always think back to the year before I got here,” Jackson said. “It was the College GameDay year with Richmond and JMU. And thinking about that game always gets me excited with the atmosphere that was there at that game. I wasn’t there, but I always imagined when we play each other, especially at JMU that the atmosphere is always incredible.”
Even Dukes coach Curt Cignetti, who will lead his team in this game for the first time, has gotten his necessary lesson about the JMU-Richmond series.
“[Former JMU coach] Mickey Matthews and I were talking before the season started,” Cignetti said. “And he said there’s two games you’ve got to win every year. You got to win William & Mary and you’ve got to win Richmond. And I kind of view it like you’ve got to win every game here, but it’s an instate rival and the next one up and I know it means a lot to a lot of people, so it’s added incentive.”
Cignetti said Richmond has improved greatly since last season and the first month of this one.
The Spiders have four victories in their last six contests while leaning on quarterback Joe Mancuso. He’s racked up 22 total touchdowns this year.
Dukes senior linebacker Landan Word said the defense’s priority is to slow Mancuso’s running style since the quarterback leads the Spiders with 588 rushing yards.
“The atmosphere inside the facility changed a little bit this week because it’s the last instate rival,” Word said. “It’s Richmond, which is the biggest rivalry of the year and so it’s going to be fun and we’re going to be hyped, but the focus has to be there, too.”
Huesman said Richmond must execute the best it has all year if his team is going to upend JMU.
“When we won the national championship at Richmond [in 2008],” Huesman said, “we were playing with redshirt seniors and redshirt juniors, and that’s where James Madison is at right now. And playing with guys that have been in the program, and obviously they know how to win, expect to win each and every game no matter who they play, it’s a tall order.”
The Coaches: Though Cignetti hasn’t coached in the JMU-Richmond rivalry yet, he has faced Huesman before.
When Cignetti was at Elon, his Phoenix topped Huesman’s Spiders 36-33 two years ago and 38-28 last year.
Huesman is in his 11th season as a head coach, racking up a record of 74-54 while Cignetti is 76-27 in his ninth season as a head coach. Richmond offensive coordinator Jeff Durden was a JMU assistant for nine seasons under Matthews.
The Quarterbacks: Mancuso and JMU’s Ben DiNucci are both catalysts for their offenses, though Richmond relies more on Mancuso for its running game than the Dukes rely on DiNucci for theirs.
DiNucci ranks second nationally with a completion rate of 68 percent, and has combined for 20 total touchdowns compared to only four interceptions this season.
Series History: Saturday’s winner will take the all-time series lead. Entering the contest JMU and Richmond are 18-18 against each other.
Signal-Callers Beware: Both DiNucci and Mancuso better be ready to get rid of the ball.
The Dukes and Spiders are first and second, respectively, for sacks in the CAA.
“When you watch the film you look at who’s getting back there consecutively,” Mancuso said. “Who is always causing havoc in the backfield? So, it’s knowing where they’re at all times and making sure you’re able to play within that without aggravating the game.”
This season, JMU has racked up 31 total sacks while Richmond has tallied 26 sacks. Dukes defensive end John Daka is fourth nationally with 11 sacks while Jackson leads Richmond with 7.5 sacks.
“Kind of like James Madison,” Huesman said of his team’s pass rush. “James Madison has got a lot of talented guys up there and when you got talented guys you can rush the passer.”
Mike Greene has 6.5 sacks and Ron’Dell Carter has six for the Dukes while Kobie Turner has added 5.5 for the Spiders.
Percy Pushing Forward: JMU junior running back Percy Agyei-Obese can make it three straight games with at least 100 rushing yards if he hits that mark against Richmond.
Though he hasn’t started at the position since Week 1, he ran for 111 yards and a touchdown against Towson on Oct. 26 and then 130 yards and three scores versus New Hampshire last week.
“We were starting [Solomon] Vanhorse there for a while,” Cignetti said. “And then Jawon [Hamilton] was the next guy in and Jawon has been running well, so we just kicked the rotation up. But it’s really not so much who starts the game, but who finishes the game.”
Cignetti said Vanhorse should play this week after being held out due to an injury the past two contests.
Don’t Be Surprised If: Dukes safety Adam Smith is in the right spot again.
The senior intercepted a pass in each of the last four games and can make it five games in a row with an interception if he can pick one off against Mancuso.
More Than Anything: JMU wants to keep playing games at Bridgeforth Stadium and with wins against Richmond and next week at Rhode Island, that should happen.
“Hopefully we’ll get the home field advantage throughout the playoffs,” Word, a senior, said. “But walking out here for the last time with my guys, it’ll feel really special. It’s hard to put into words how these last few years have been.”
Word, in his third year with the program after transferring from Virginia, is part of a senior class that’ll be honored before this contest. The program is 46-7 over the last four seasons.
“It’s exceeded my expectations,” Word said. “It really has. I wanted to come to a school just to win games, but everything else that comes with it, the brotherhood and how much you can learn on a daily basis, it’s really insane being in this atmosphere and on this team.”