(STATS) – James Madison's 20 upperclassmen starters have learned some hard lessons during their extensive time on campus.
Regular-season success hasn't translated to postseason glory for this current crop of Dukes, a trend the CAA Football champions will be motivated to reverse in a matchup with the conference's most playoff-tested team.
Seeded fourth in the FCS playoff field and ranked No. 5 in the STATS Top 25, JMU (10-1) begins the postseason at home for a third straight year in Saturday's second-round showdown with league rival and No. 22 New Hampshire (8-4). The past two resulted in stunning losses, a 26-21 defeat to Liberty in 2014 and last December's 44-38 setback to Colgate as a No. 5 national seed.
While those painful outcomes may still be fresh in his players' minds, coach Mike Houston insists his team won't be haunted by its previous failures, which occurred under the Dukes' previous leadership regime.
“We've brought up a lot of things about the last two years all year long, and I think the big thing is it is crystal-clear to our players that they're a completely different group than what has been here the last two years,” said Houston, who took over the program after Everett Withers left for FBS-level Texas State in January. “I think that they fully understand that every year's a new year and every team's a new team.”
The Dukes have indeed been remarkably focused during Houston's short stint, having run the table in CAA play for the first time since 2008 and defeating each of the league's three other playoff participants on the road. They're the only team to go 10-0 against FCS competition.
One of the few moments JMU briefly let its guard down came during its October 15 visit to New Hampshire. After building a 42-12 lead as CAA offensive player of the year Bryan Schor accounted for five touchdowns, the Dukes allowed 27 unanswered points over the final seven-plus minutes before escaping Durham with a narrow win by recovering an onside kick with 1:13 left.
“I maybe lost a couple years off my life at that game,” Dukes senior linebacker Gage Steele said.
The frantic finish served as a stark wakeup call for a defense that was riddled for 512 passing yards that day. The Dukes responded by holding three of their next four opponents to 14 points or fewer and successfully closing out tight games against playoff-bound Richmond and Villanova.
“It showed us that you can't ever get relaxed,” Steele said. “In the games after that like Villanova or Richmond, we couldn't do at all what we did at New Hampshire. That's something that's fueled the fire for us as a team.”
The unit will surely be tested by an experienced New Hampshire squad whose senior class has been a part of nine playoff games, winning six and twice reaching the semifinals. And the Wildcats enter Harrisonburg off their best offensive showing of the season, piling up 637 yards and 28 first downs in a 64-21 dismantling of Patriot League champ Lehigh in last week's first round.
Quarterback Adam Riese, stepping in for injured starter Trevor Knight, threw for a career-high 273 yards and three touchdowns to spur the rout. The fifth-year senior also engineered the near-comeback against JMU by leading four touchdown drives after Knight exited in the fourth quarter with a shoulder stinger.
“We know that Adam can get the job done. He's proven it multiple times since he's been here,” senior running back Dalton Crossan said.
While Riese and receivers Neil O'Connor (52 catches, 767 yards, 6 TDs) and Malik Love (56 catches, 476 yards) – who combined for 22 receptions totaling 319 yards in the regular-season meeting – will again challenge JMU's veteran secondary, how the Wildcats run the ball may best determine whether they can extend their season. UNH has won 20 straight when rushing for 184 yards or more.
The Wildcats churned out a season-high 364 yards and six touchdowns on the ground against Lehigh, with Crossan (1,189 yards, 40 catches, 12 total TDs) and Trevon Bryant each eclipsing the century mark. Conversely, they were held to a season-low 57 by the Dukes in October.
New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell knows his team will need to keep the chains moving to combat JMU's prolific attack. Led by Schor's precision passing and the running of first team All-CAA back Khalid Abdullah (1,300 yards, 19 total TDs), the Dukes rank in the FCS top four in third-down conversion percentage (54.7, 1st), scoring, total yards per game (522.0, 3rd) and rushing yards per game (297.1, 4th). Their 47.7 points per game trail only potential quarterfinals opponent Sam Houston State. JMU would face either the unbeaten Bearkats or Chattanooga next week with a victory.
“These guys are the most explosive team on offense that we have seen,” McDonnell said. “Lehigh did some similar things and they were really good, but as I told the team (Sunday) night, that was just a lead-up to what we're seeing.”
The Wildcats are expecting to see Schor (2026 passing yards, 18 TDs, 3 INTs, 545 rushing yards), whose initial status was in question after he injured his left collarbone on Nov. 12 and missed the regular-season finale against Elon. The junior dual-threat was back practicing in full pads this week, though Houston wouldn't reveal for certain whether he'd play.