Following Villanova’s 38-17 loss to Penn State, the Wildcats have arguably their biggest game of the season, traveling to the third-ranked James Madison. The ‘Cats had a bye week after facing the Nittany Lions and have been preparing for the preseason pick to win the CAA for about a week and a half.
This matchup will not only be one of the biggest FCS tests for each squad thus far, but it will also play a pivotal role in the CAA standings as both teams have aspirations of a conference title.
The Dukes opened their season with two dominant victories over Morehead State and CAA opponent Maine, winning by an average of 53 points. Following those tune-up games, JMU faced two tougher opponents, No. 9 Weber State and No. 25 New Hampshire, winning both matchups, 37-24 and 23-21, respectively.
Like Villanova, JMU has a stout run defense, giving up only 31.8 yards per game thus far, which is the second fewest in FCS. Even if the first two blowouts of the season are removed, the Dukes’ defense is only surrendering 61.5 rushing yards per contest on an elite two yards per carry. Their defensive front is led by senior CAA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Mike Greene, junior Isaac Ukwa, who has 4.5 tackles for loss and a team-high three sacks, and senior Bryce Carter, the team leader in tackles for loss with six.
Throughout the season, the Wildcats have the third-best run defense, giving up only 42 yards per game. In the past two games against stellar competition in No. 21 Richmond and FBS title contender Penn State, the ‘Cats only gave up 79.5 rushing yards per game and 2.7 yards per rush. Graduate Forrest Rhyne and senior Amin Black, both linebackers, and graduate defensive lineman Malik Fisher, have helped blow up plays behind the line of scrimmage, combining for 11.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
“We think that we’re the number one rushing defense in the FCS,” Rhyne said following Villanova’s loss to Penn State. “Our defense is built to stop the run, and that’s the number one thing that we emphasize. So to stop the run is the standard, is what we’re supposed to do.”
Led by sophomore running back Latrele Palmer’s 69 yards per game on the ground, the Dukes average 204.8 rushing yards a game, 19th best in FCS. The ‘Cats average 174 rushing yards per contest, good for 33rd best in FCS, led by graduate CAA Preseason Honorable Mention Justin Covington, who averages 80.5 rushing yards per game. The battle up front between two high-powered run games and two of the best FCS run defenses will be something to monitor on Saturday.
Senior quarterback Cole Johnson is under center and has freshman CAA Preseason Honorable Mention Antwane Wells Jr. (87.5 yards per game) and junior CAA Preseason All-Conference member Kris Thornton (80.5 YPG) as his top targets. Of the 15 receiving touchdowns this season for the Dukes, nine of them have gone to Wells and Thornton, who have caught five and four, respectively. At 292.2 yards per game, JMU’s pass attack is ranked 14th in the FCS, while Villanova’s pass defense is middle of the pack, giving up 223.8 yards per contest. Villanova’s secondary is led by senior defensive back Christian Benford, who has four interceptions on the season.
Villanova’s aerial attack, quarterbacked by graduate Daniel Smith, has been slightly above average in the FCS, passing for 237 yards per game. Junior receivers Rayjoun Pringle (62.8 YPG) and Jaaron Hayek (57 YPG) lead the way for the ‘Cats’ receiving corps, hauling in a combined seven of the teams 11 touchdown passes. JMU’s pass defense is one of the best in the FCS, giving up just 184.2 yards per game. Senior cornerback Ross Greg highlights the Dukes’ secondary, with three pass breakups and two interceptions on the season.
The Dukes have a favorable matchup on both sides of the passing game, particularly on offense. It will be interesting to see if JMU coach Curt Cignetti is pass heavy on Saturday, given his team has the advantage in the air, and the Wildcats have such a stellar run defense.
While this game might have more importance than any other matchup this season, Villanova coach Mark Ferrante has the same goal as every week.
“We’re gonna still try to go in there and do what we can and hopefully play an error-free, penalty-free, turnover-free, consistent game,” he said. “And that’s kind of the goal each week.”
Kickoff Saturday is at 2 p.m.