(Photo courtesy Fred Comegys/The Delaware News Journal)
Going into last weekend, the specter of five CAA teams in the playoffs loomed large. But with James Madison's 20-8 upset of Delaware and Maine's 19-9 upset of UMass made it that much more likely that the CAA only puts three at-large teams into the playoffs.
If there was any thought that Mickey Matthews' James Madison team was going to roll over the rest of the year, that was dispelled this past weekend on the road against the Blue Hens. Trailing 3-0 at halftime, the Dukes' long-dormant offense finally came alive, with freshman QB Justin Thorpe breaking a ten quarter touchdown-less streak with a 12 yard run. Add to that a smothering defensive performance - forcing Hen junior QB Pat Devlin into a 19-for-42, 2 interception day, and only allowing the Hens a paltry 9 yards rushing.
Since beating New Hampshire and remaining in the hunt for a playoff spot, UMass has self-destructed. There's no other way to describe it, having committed an amazing 13 turnovers in two games. No, that's not a typo: seven turnovers against No. 1 Richmond, ands six against Maine. Black Bear sophomore LB Donte Dennis nabbed two of the interceptions, broke up two passes, recovered a fumble, and got 11 tackles in the afternoon. One of his interceptions set up what would end up being Maine's go-ahead touchown, a 7 yard TD pass to freshman WR Derrick Johnson.
Folks around the country will continue to be huge JMU fans. With four losses, UMass is an unlikely (but not impossible) at-large choice - but if JMU beats them in two weeks, they will definitely be out with five losses. Delaware only has three losses - but with a win over Division II West Chester, they would have to run the table - including against FBS Navy, who is the front-runner for the Commander-in-Chief trophy (and not to mention No. 4 Villanova as well, who was idle last week).
If UMass and Delaware don't survive, that leaves 7-1 Villanova, 8-0 Richmond (who just won their seventeenth straight game with a 42-14 throttling of Towson) 7-1 William & Mary (who took out Rhode Island last weekend 39-14) and 7-1 New Hampshire (who pounded Northeastern 48-21).
Fortunately for the CAA, there are going to be some great games coming up - including No. 4 Villanova at No. 1 Richmond this weekend. New Hampshire at William & Mary next weekend, and the "Oldest Rivalry of the South," Richmond and William & Mary, play for the 119th time on November 21st. Still, barring a meltdown in the next three weeks by one of these four teams, the Patriot League Champion - and possibly a Patriot League at-large team as well - seems likely that they will be playing at one of these four venues.
Other big games this past weekend:
- Last year, 7-1 Central Connecticut State saw their dreams of a NEC title go up in smoke in Albany when they missed a late two-point conversion. This time at home, the tables were turned as the Blue Devils stopped the Danes' two-point try - and stopped Albany's 18 game NEC winning streak with a gutty 31-29 win. Senior RB James Mallory had his best-ever day running the ball - 204 yards, and 3 TDs. "I felt good about the game the whole week," Mallory said. "I just followed my blocks. I have to give all the credit to my offensive line. I did the easy part, running the ball. They did the hard part." The Blue Devils look like a shoo-in for the NEC title - with a weak schedule remaining - and if they go 10-1 and get a lot of help, might even be playing in the playoffs instead of the "Gridiron Classic", the postseason game between the NEC and Pioneer League champions.
- The Big South became a two-team race this weekend. One of the teams was expected: 6-2 Liberty, with a predictable 55-19 burying of Presbyterian last weekend. The other team, not so much: 5-4 Stony Brook, whose 24-14 win over Gardner-Webb gives the Seawolves a real shot. As long as the Seawolves take care of business against Charleston Southern in two weeks, when they host Liberty the final week of the season it may very well be for the championship. If the Flames win, at 9-2 will be prime candidates for an at-large bid (especially if Lafayette, whom they beat 19-13, finishes strong). If the Seawolves win, at least one at-large team might be sending Seawolf senior RB Conte Cuttino and senior RB Ed Gowins Christmas cards.
- Not many teams can only eclipse the 21 point barrier two times during the course of the season and still be in the title race, but that's exactly where Penn finds themselves this year. The Quakers hadn't beaten Brown since 2004 nor had they won an overtime game since 2004, but both streaks were broken with their 14-7 overtime victory over the Bears. If their offense isn't doing it, it must be their defense, led by senior DL Joe Goniprow and senior LB Jake Lewko - giving up only 66 rushing yards per game (good for No. 2 in FCS). Undefeated in Ivy play, their game at Harvard in two weeks looks like it will be the Ivy League championship game, barring any major surprises.
- Finally, Lehigh's three final opponents - Lafayette, Fordham and Holy Cross - all showed that they are teams to fear. 7-1 Lafayette's 35-14 win over Bucknell featured a near-perfect game by senior QB Rob Curley that was so amazing he won Patriot League Offensive Player of the Week - 30 for 35 passing, 3 TDs, no interceptions. And Fordham and Holy Cross combined for over 1,000 yards of offense - fitting a matchup between two NFL prospects, Holy Cross senior QB Dominic Randolph and Fordham senior QB John Skelton - as the Crusaders avenged their loss at Fordham two years ago by beating the Rams 41-27. Amazingly, if Lehigh were to run this gauntlet of hell - and if Lafayette beats Colgate this weekend - Lehigh would win the Patriot League at 5-6 and win the Patriot League's autobid, and would become the first-ever team to play in the playoffs with a losing record.
- PS. It is conceivable that Lehigh will have played the NEC champion (Central Connecticut State), Ivy League Champion (Harvard) and CAA Champion (Villanova) all in the same year (and, might I add, all in the first four weeks of the season!). That's not an excuse for a losing record, but in retrospect this has been Lehigh's toughest schedule in recent memory. Furthermore, if the Blue Devils end up in the Top 25 - and they very well might - that means that Lehigh will have played six teams that spent time this year in the Sports Network Top 25. Six! And one huge purple one, of course, looms ahead this weekend.