There’s no stat, clip of film or anything else to share with the players that they don’t already know.
Since 2016, James Madison and New Hampshire have played each more frequently than any other opponent for either side, and today’s Colonial Athletic Association bout between the No. 2 Dukes (8-1, 5-0 CAA) and the No. 23 Wildcats (5-3, 4-1 CAA) will mark the fifth contest between the two sides over the last four seasons.
Kickoff at Bridgeforth Stadium is set for 3:30 p.m.
“We both have good, stout teams,” JMU running back Percy Agyei-Obese said. “We’re both pretty disciplined on both sides, also. There are good coaches and we both take football to heart. We like to play hard on the field and that’s why I think it’s always a good matchup every year.”
The two programs are the CAA’s most consistent, too.
Before last year, UNH was in the playoffs for 14 straight seasons and JMU has reached the postseason in each of the last five years. And the way both are trending this fall could make it 15 playoff showings in 16 seasons for the Wildcats and six consecutive berths for the Dukes.
On Wednesday, the Division I Football Championship Committee put JMU at No. 2 and UNH at No. 10 in its lone public reveal of rankings prior to the unveiling of the tournament field later this month.
“Last year we had a bad year, but we upset them at home,” Wildcats safety Evan Horn said. “I think this game is a lot better because there’s a lot more on the line for us. Last year, we were already out of the playoffs and didn’t have much to play for besides our pride, really, in terms of that game. So I’m looking forward to playing in this type of game.”
UNH shocked the Dukes with a 35-24 decision last year in Durham, N.H., but the score wasn’t close until the fourth quarter when the victory was already secured for the Wildcats. UNH jumped out to 21-3 lead thanks to a pair of interception returns for touchdowns, which included the 75-yard score for Horn.
“We didn’t stop the bleeding,” JMU cornerback Rashad Robinson said. “We didn’t come together as a team and we kind of got away from ourselves throughout the game and it was a lot of the guys’ first time being down like that.
“And even though we had lost to Elon, it was a close game. But we were down like 14-0 and a lot of guys were never in that situation before and we didn’t know how to bounce back, so we got to do everything we can this week to stay focused and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Robinson didn’t play in the game last year since he missed all of 2018 with turf toe, but was part of wins for JMU over UNH earlier in his career. He said one of his favorite memories is the 82-yard interception return for a touchdown he had in JMU’s 21-0 shutout of the Wildcats two years ago.
And the experience of trying to defend the UNH offense is key, according to Robinson.
Robinson, a senior, along with senior defensive end Ron’Dell Carter and senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway all have played significant reps in multiple games against UNH throughout their careers.
Even with a freshman quarterback, Max Brosmer, the Wildcats are still up to their usual pre-snap motions and tactics to confuse opponents with the offensive scheme that dates back to when Chip Kelly was the offensive coordinator at the school.
“That’s one thing that comes with New Hampshire,” Robinson said. “They do a lot of motions and try to get you out of place and get your eyes out of place, so we’re working on that this week to make sure everyone is sound. Communication is going to be a big thing with all the motions this week with checking different calls.”
And both Robinson and Horn said they feel like there’s little room for error for either defense since both defenses are so good. One or two scores allowed could be the difference.
JMU leads the CAA in scoring defense (16.1 points per game allowed) and total defense (289.9 yards allowed per game). New Hampshire is second in each category allowing 16.6 points per game and 343 yards per game. The Wildcats lead the conference with 13 interceptions while the Dukes top the league with 29 total sacks.
“Coach [Curt Cignetti] talked about it in our first meeting,” Robinson said. “He said it’s going to be a physical, hard-nosed game, so we got to prepare like that. And our biggest thing is to start fast off the bye week. A team like this can really catch you off guard, especially coming off the bye week and we saw what happened going up there last year, so it’s an extra motivation and chip on our shoulder to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The Coaches: With JMU’s win on Oct. 26 over Towson, Cignetti improved to 75-27 in his career as a head coach. UNH interim coach Ricky Santos has led the Wildcats to a 5-3 start this season.
Missing Coach Mac: Santos stepped in for longtime UNH coach Sean McDonnell, who took a leave of absence for health-related reasons in late August.
McDonnell has 154 victories for his career and is third all-time in the CAA with 98 wins in the league.
“You’re really never prepared for that,” Santos said about taking over the program on an interim basis. “I didn’t know it was coming. It was one of those things where we didn’t know the severity of Coach’s health situation until a couple weeks prior.
“But I came back to UNH with the associate head coach title and my goal was to shadow him for two or three years or however long he had left, and hopefully prove that I could be the leader and forge this thing into the future. But it was thrust on me a lot quicker. But I’ve been taking advantage of the opportunity and been working really hard to inspire these guys and lead them.”
Horn said Santos is doing a great job and has rallied the Wildcats to win five of their last six while playing for McDonnell. Horn said McDonnell is still with the team regularly, so they do have interaction with him.
“Coach Santos stepped in and has done a great job of telling us we can’t control what happens there,” Horn said, “but we can control our picture we paint for Coach Mac on the field. And we can paint that picture for him every day, every week for him to feel some sort of good. He’s always around, so it’s not like he’s not around, but it’s been really great to have these wins come for him. And he’s in the locker room. Even when we beat Stony Brook, we drive back and it’s 4 in the morning and he’s there in the parking lot waiting for us to get off the bus.”
Cignetti said it’s a credit to the program McDonnell built that the Wildcats are still playing well this season.
“I’m sure it’s an emotional deal for them where they’re playing for him to some degree,” Cignetti said.
The Quarterbacks: Brosmer had had highs and lows like most freshmen quarterbacks do, throwing for 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season, but he’s coming off his best performance. Last week, he threw for three touchdowns to help UNH to a come-from-behind win over Villanova.
Brosmer doesn’t stack up statistically to JMU senior Ben DiNucci. The Dukes’ signal-caller has a 15-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and is fifth in all of FCS for completion percentage (67.7 percent).
Series History: Not only has the recent years produced an entertaining series, but the Dukes and Wildcats have always been evenly matched.
JMU holds a slight, 10-9 advantage all-time over UNH. The first year the two met was 1982.
Disruptive Duo: On Thursday, JMU senior defensive ends Carter and John Daka were added to the Buck Buchanan Award watch list. The award goes to the best defender in all of FCS each season.
And Santos said Carter and Daka are a concern for the UNH offense.
“Their two defensive ends are as dynamic of pass rushers you’ll find at the FCS level,” Santos said.
Carter and Daka have combined for 79 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks through nine games.
In Amos’ Absence: The Dukes will be without D’Angelo Amos for the first half of the game because he was called for a targeting penalty in the second half of JMU’s win over Towson.
Cignetti said MJ Hampton is likely to get the reps at safety and that Jack Sroba will handle the punt-return duties in place of Amos.
Don’t Be Surprised If: To avoid the pressure Carter and Daka can create that UNH uses fast-timed passes to its running backs out of the backfield.
“They’re trying to complete easy completions for the quarterback,” Cignetti said. “And they’re quick throws where they can get the ball out of his hands real quick in space.”
Wildcats running back Carlos Washington has 23 receptions, the second most on the team, and running back Dylan Laube had two grabs go for touchdowns last Saturday against Villanova.
More Than Anything: JMU can keep its sole-possession of first place in the CAA with a win over UNH.
The Dukes can clinch at least a share of the league title this afternoon with a victory combined with a Richmond loss to Villanova. Either way, a win over the Wildcats today and a win next week against Richmond would give the Dukes an outright league title.
Robinson said that’s the goal.
“Absolutely, that’d be the best thing we can do,” he said. “But at the end of the day we have to win this first one to even look forward to next week, so we’ve got focus on this Saturday first.”