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Know Your 2014 Opponents: James Madison

(Photo Credit: Lehigh Athletics)

When the Dukes come to Murray Goodman Stadium this September 6th, it won't quite be a full decade since James Madison last came to Bethlehem.

But the occasion of that almost-decade-old meeting - the first round of the FCS playoffs in 2004 - is not easily forgotten by either side.

For fans of the Purple and Gold, it was the first step towards a memorable FCS National Championship run - all four wins coming on the road.

For fans of the Brown and White, however, the memory always goes back to those seven downs.

In 2004, Lehigh didn't even know if they were going to qualify for the postseason after falling to Lafayette.

The 140th meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette was not kind to the Brown and White, seeing their bitter rivals upset them 24-10 behind the multi-faceted play of QB Brad Maurer.  It would give the Maroon and White only their second win over Lehigh over a span of ten years.

Normally sure-handed RB Eric Rath blamed himself for the defeat.  "Personally, it was a dagger in the heart," he said after that game.  "I probably played the worst game of my football career, since I was 5 years old. It's horrible to put the ball on the ground and let your teammates down. I fumbled three times in my whole life. Two of them were in that Lafayette game."

With a 16 team field and no guarantees that an at-large bid would be extended to the co-champions of the Patriot League, Lehigh fans anxiously awaited their playoff fates - and were surprised and thrilled to learn that they were not only in the field, but hosting a playoff game as well.

On James Madison's side, the thought had to have been that they were, to some degree, snubbed of a home game.  After all, the Dukes' only losses came to local rival William and Mary, co-champions of the southern wing for the Atlantic 10, and West Virginia, a team that few expected the Dukes to beat.

But the Purple and Gold faithful made the trip to South Bethlehem, invading the visiting stands at Murray Goodman and making the crowd about a 50/50 split in terms of allegiance.

After falling behind 7-0 early, Lehigh would take the lead over James Madison with 10 straight points, thanks to a newly-focused Eric Rath punching the ball in for a 6 yard touchdown run.

But then came the infamous seven downs.

Near the end of the first half, James Madison's offensive drive set the Dukes up with 1st and goal at the 1 yard line.  There was little doubt as to head coach Mickey Matthews' strategy - line up behind the Duke's huge, physical offensive line, and ram it right down Lehigh's throat.

That didn't happen, with LB Anthony Graziani, DE/LB Owen Breineger, FS Karrie Ford and SS Kaloma Cardwell successfully filling the gap and stuffing QB Justin Rascati and RB Raymond Hines on three straight plays.

From the one, to the half yard line, then pushed back - Lehigh seemed to have James Madison stopped cold on a cold day with cheering from the home side - until a flag was seen on the field.  Personal Foul, unsportsmanlike conduct, on DL Josh Cooney, 1/2 the distance to the goal, four fresh downs.

Replays didn't show anything obvious, and to this day it's not clear what Cooney did to deserve the flag.

"The penalty had something to do with extracurricular activity after the play,'' head coach Pete Lembo said after the game. ''I'm certainly not going to criticize the officials because it was an emotionally charged game and there was a lot of pushing and shoving down there. It was a tough game to control.  At the same time, you hate to see a penalty like that in a critical situation when there was a lot going on the entire first half. You hate to see those kind of things happen."

With four fresh downs, Matthews didn't change the playbook at all.

On "fourth and goal," Lehigh stuffed their powerful running game again.  On "fifth and goal", stuffed for a loss.  On "sixth and goal", the home side at near peak volume, Lehigh's defense stuffed Rascati another time, at the 1/2 yard line once again, with Lehigh fans ecstatic.

On "seventh and goal", Matthews went for it one last time.

But this time Hines squeezed through the line for the touchdown, to give James Madison the 14-10 lead they wouldn't relinquish.

"We just didn't want to let them beat us,'' Owen Breininger said after the game. ''We felt we picked the worst spot to play our worst game of the year last week. We wanted to come out and show people what we could do.  It was a great goal-line stand.  It really gave us a lot of confidence."

Though it was still a defeat, the "seventh and goal" really seemed to embody the fighting spirit of that Lehigh football team.

After the game, though obviously disappointed by the outcome, Pete Lembo knew how good James Madison was, and he shared that he thought that through time, people would realize how difficult it was for Lehigh to beat them.  "That was one hell of a ball game," I recall him saying.  "We're disappointed we're not going to Furman, but we proved to a lot of people that we belonged in this tournament."


When Lehigh and James Madison arranged to put this game on the 2014 schedule, they probably thought that Matthews would return to the "scene of the crime", at least from a Lehigh fan context.

Few would have predicted last year that Matthews' time in Harrisonburg would have come to a close by the time this game was to be played, but that's exactly what happened after the Dukes went 6-6, ending the season on a three game slide against three teams with playoff resumes in the last two years, New Hampshire, Stony Brook, and Towson.

The dismissal seems even more incomprehensible when you consider that Matthews' last losing season came in 2002, and over the last twelve years he navigated the Dukes to five playoff appearances, including that fateful national championship.

That means that head coach Andy Coen will be strategizing against new Dukes head coach Everett Withers, who will have had all of one game of head coaching experience when he comes to Murray Goodman stadium.

A defensive coordinator at a multitude of stops in a 26 year coaching career, Withers' resume reads like a dream: the NFL's Tennessee Titans.  Ohio State.  Minnesota.  Louisville.  Texas.  He even has experience in the FCS: as a player, he was a defensive back for Appalachian State.

It's also worth noting that Withers' coaching style seems like the polar opposite of Matthews, who had a reputation of being a hands-off coach.

The first thing you see in Withers' introduction video is a shot going into a dark gymnasium with the byline "5:45 AM", where Withers is leading the team in wind sprints and drills.

"Learn to do things right," he said.  "If you learn to do those things, it becomes easier to have success down the road.  We're trying to build that culture here."

It's strange, on the one hand, for the video to show Matthews raising the 2004 FCS National Championship trophy and Withers to say "we're building on Mickey's legacy", then on the other to see him spend so much time on "developing the culture at JMU," as if they were at cross purposes.

That's not how Rob Abbott over at the JMU Sports Blog feels, however.

"After last year's disappointing season most fans, including us, were ready for Mickey Matthews to go," he said.  "We'll always be grateful for the National Championship he brought to JMU and to the tremendous growth the program had under his leadership. It's clear the program had hit a plateau though and there was no excuse for the Dukes to finish outside the playoffs given the tremendous advantages Matthews had at his disposal in terms of facilities and support."

Abbott said that Withers is bringing an all-out blitz to engage Dukes fans.

"He immediately put his stamp on the program, inserting some much needed enthusiasm and energy into a program that was lacking both," he said.  "He completely revamped the academic side of the house, creating a competitive environment in the classroom and incentivizing players by offering greater freedom for improved grades. Withers has also taken steps to engage with fans, particularly students, in ways that his predecessor did not. He hosted JMU's first annual 'Student Appreciation Day' at which more than 800 students toured the locker room, tried on the uniform, got free t-shirts, and even had the chance to run drills with the Dukes. During his spring speaking tour with the boosters, Withers also teased hosting a similar 'Alumni Appreciation Day' in the future. Things like this have helped him win over the fan base pretty quickly."

If the preseason teams that are being released are any indication, Withers might need to have a core of friends behind him.

Aside from sophomore LB Gage Steele, and senior S Dean Marlowe, no all-CAA players return for the Dukes on either side of the ball, though James Madison, who played a 4-3 defense last season, provides plenty of experience - and senior talent.  Senior SS Titus Till and senior S Jeremiah Wilson both spent time in the Duke secondary last year as transfers from Maryland.

Then there's the situation of the Dukes' starting quarterback.

Sophomore QB Michael Birdsong, who closed out the season last year for the Dukes, seemed like the odds-on favorite to get the starting nod at quarterback until a transfer from Georgia Tech, junior QB Vad Lee, entered the picture.

Reportedly unhappy with the offense at Tech, the triple option run by former Georgia Southern head coach Paul Johnson, Lee wanted to transfer to a school where he would be better utilized.  Enter Everett Withers and James Madison.

It was difficult to see Withers not giving Lee the nod, especially considering that he did fairly well in the spring for the Dukes, going 11 of 18 for 149 yards and three touchdowns, including one on the ground.

Shortly after the spring game, Birdsong said he was leaving to transfer to Marshall, leaving the job to be Vad Lee's to lose.

"Lee is more of a dual threat," Abbott told me, "which probably makes him better suited for the offense the Dukes are expected to run. Still, losing a guy like Birdsong (even if he was going to be a backup) isn't great."

It seems to this reporter that the Dukes will not stray incredibly far from the formula that Matthews established for James Madison - tremendous athletes at each position, an elusive, athletic quarterback that is difficult to bring down, and a tough, physical defense.  Abbott hints at a faster offense, kind of how Lehigh plays "quick" on offense as well.

The question is how far along will the Dukes be on their road back to CAA championships and the FCS postseason when they meet Lehigh in Week 2.

"Coach Withers was a big splash hire who has already put his stamp on the JMU program," Abbott said.  "None of it will matter much if it doesn't translate to wins though. I'm not sure if we speak for the majority of the fan base, but we actually feel much better about the Dukes' chances heading into this season under Withers, than we did the past few years under Mickey."


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