This will be the Dukes' second game of the season, after last week's shellacking of non-scholarship Morehead State, 56-7.
They never really took their foot off the gas.
The Dukes racked up a school-record 713 yards against the hapless Eagles, including three position players rushing for over 100 yards. Morehead State only turned over the ball twice, but the frenetic-pace-of-play Dukes still managed to execute 90 plays on offense and probably could have gotten up to 100 plays had they not relented just a little in the 4th quarter.
It's not enough for Lehigh to hold James Madison to less than 713 yards in order to have a chance. They'll need to do more.
After reading the above, you might be forgiven if you wonder how on God's Green Earth Lehigh held this powerful James Madison offense to 10 points in a half at Murray Goodman last season.
The first part of the answer involves the learning curve. Last season, the Dukes were only in Game 2 of the Everett Withers era, with players still getting a feel for how the offense was going to roll. As evidenced by last week's performance, there's no hesitation anymore.
There were some big plays, though, that really helped Lehigh's cause in the first half.
Like the onsides kick attempt that was recovered by senior LB Noah Robb when the Dukes, up 10-7, tried to push the pedal down and really put the pressure on the Montain Hawks. Instead, junior WR Nick Shafnisky lofted a touchdown pass to WR Josh Parris and Lehigh was able to re-take the lead.
There was pressure that caused James Madison to miss a crucial field goal. There was consistent pressure from junior LB Colton Caslow, causing Duke drives to stall and end in punts instead of scores. Even though James Madison's pace was blistering, Lehigh kept up for most of the game - and came dastardly close to coming away with it.
It won't be any easier this time around, on the road. But the ingredients on how to beat James Madison were there in the film of last year's game.
Breaking Down James Madison
Are FCS players eligible for the Heisman? RT @JMUFootball: Vad Lee’s final line: 18-25, 297yds, 3 TDs, 13 carries, 105yds, 1 TD.— Ryan Hudson (@ry_hudson) September 6, 2015
|James Madison QB Vad Lee|
The game notes predictably have the 6'1, 225 lb Lee leading James Madison's Ohio State-like, Urban Meyer-like offense, with its combination of speedy pace of play and balance on offense, dependent on an athletic dual-threat quarterback that's difficult to bring down. As seen by his efficient, 400+ all-purpose yard effort against Morehead State, he's a near-perfect fit for this offense.
The big challenge of the Dukes' offense is that you always have to respect Vad's considerable running ability, and if a defense keys too much on that Lee has shown improved ability to make opponents pay with well-placed passes. At Georgia Tech, Lee's completion percentage was below 50%. Last week? 72%.
Last week Withers had the opportunity to rotate in multiple backs to give them time, and 5'10 junior RB Khalid Abdullah (103 yards, 3 TDs) and 5'9 sophomore RB Cardon Johnson (125 yards, 1 TD) will be the speedy backs to accompany Lee's rushing game in the single back set. Of the two, Abdullah is the better pass receiver out of the backfield, adding another Dukes weapon to consider.
|Junior WR Brandon Ravenel (Harrisonburg Daily News-Record)|
While the size gap isn't as big as it was on the lines at one time, James Madison has always had a reputation of consistently recruiting strong linemen, and this year's squad is no exception. 6'6, 305 senior OL Austin Lane is exactly the type of player that could get consideration at the next level, and is a major reason why their offense has done what it's been able to do since last season.
Last season, Withers moved JMU from their traditional 4-3 to a multiple 3-4 defense. It's probably not accurate to call it a sort-of "bend-but-don't-break" defense, but it definitely is one that puts a premium on sacks and turnovers. Last season, the Dukes amassed 37 sacks and ended up an impressive +14 in turnover ratio, a huge reason for their success. However, they also yielded points in bunches, too. Villanova dropped 49 on them in an early-season loss last season.
Their foundation on defense starts with what is, frankly, a mammoth front three, with 311 lb senior DE Xavier Gates and 290 lb senior DE Alex Mosley the bookends on the line. Last week they had quiet games, but they also held Morehead State to 5 first downs on the ground. Finding running lanes around these guys has to be a key strategy for Lehigh this week.
|Pumped-up JMU LB Gage Steele (DNR Online)|
One of the things that is a little bit frightening about the Dukes is that, like Lehigh, they are a young football team that seems like they could continue to improve as the year goes along. Junior CB Taylor Reynolds is a prime example of such a player, who nabbed four interceptions last year as a sophomore and looks poised to continue to break out further this year as well.
“We had to get acclimated to the change in culture and a new way of doing things,” Reynolds told The Richmond Times-Dispatch of the change in culture at JMU last season. “Once we adapted, once we settled in, once we all got comfortable, that’s when we went on a roll."
Junior S Raven Greene, he of the crazy hair, is also poised to become a star in this defense as well.
Last season, the talent and speed was there for James Madison, but again, it didn't come together as well as it could have. With many of the same athletes from last year, Lehigh was still able to move the ball fairly well against them in key spots. In fact you could say Lehigh did an awful lot more to kill themselves on offense than JMU had done to beat the Mountain Hawks. Still, this is a very talented unit.
|JMU S Raven Greene (New York Newsday)|
It's not often that a team has a tight end back there returning kickoffs, but when you have as much speed to burn as JMU, you can afford to do so. Senior TE Deane Cheatham and junior WR Brandon Ravenel are the main kick return guys, with most teams most likely electing to kick it to the guy listed as "TE" rather than the speedy WR. Sophomore WR John Miller returns punts, and he had a quality 15 yard return last week.
Junior P Gunnar Kane was only an average punter last year, averaging 38.6 per kick, while senior PK Ryan Maglio's leg has the distance to make long kicks, converting 3 40+ yard field goals last year, he struggled with accuracy, only converting 11 of 16 tries.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Remembering And Forgetting. Critical to Lehigh's success will be forgetting some aspects of the matchup - like the home crowd, James Madison's preseason rankings, and their result last week - and remembering other, more important things, like the recipe that junior QB Nick Shafnisky, junior LB Colton Caslow and many others managed in spots at the game last year. There is no reason not to have confidence that the Mountain Hawks can come away with an upset win here. The key is in themselves.
2. Ball Control on Offense. The Mountain Hawks offense did well enough to win last week. Having said that, an offensive effort like last week's is very unlikely to be enough. The cleanup between last week and this week will be critical in order to have a chance - and that means not turning over the ball much. I'm going to be looking at the team stats "3rd down conversions" and "Turnover ratio" a lot this Saturday. If those stats favor Lehigh, the Mountain Hawks will have a chance.
3. Offense Feeding Defense. James Madison doesn't make it much of a secret that they like to play a frenetic pace of play. Lehigh needs to slow down the pace on offense to chew up the clock on big drives, which means freshman RB Micco Brisker, freshman RB Dom Bragalone and anyone else running the ball will need to grind out some tough yards. Those yards could be the difference between victory and defeat.
4. Plugging defensive gaps. Vad Lee's strength is hitting blocking gaps in his large front line for big gains, looking similar to Ohio State QB Cardale Jones in the process. Hitting those gaps and punishing him physically for hitting those gaps should be a big part of Lehigh's gameplan.
Lehigh is very fortunate to get a yardstick game like the one they are getting in Harrisonburg, Virginia this weekend. It's an opportunity to take down a big-time opponent in a big-time atmosphere. The question is, how far is Lehigh down the path of returning to Patriot League title contention?
The optimist from last week's game at Central Connecticut looks at the defensive effort and licks their chops. With the Mountain Hawks' smart play and unleashed offense, Lehigh is this close to being back. All they need to do is to prove it on Saturday.
But the skeptic looks at last week's performance and, after a reluctant smile, sees a Lehigh offense that is still a work in progress. Two TDs and two FGs will certainly not be enough to beat the Dukes. The Mountain Hawks will need more. And how much of last week's defensive effort was taking advantage of a young, evolving Central Connecticut State offense?
The key to this game will be how Lehigh's offense is able to exploit the Dukes' defense the second time around. There will be no element of surprise. And while the optimist in me sees a chance for Lehigh's offense to exceed most people's expectations - the degenerate gambling sites have Lehigh as 22 1/2 point underdogs - I think beating the Dukes on the road is an awfully tall order.
Lehigh 34, James Madison 45