Weber State looks to end JMU’s dominance

(STATS) – The fact James Madison hasn’t lost in nearly 15 months isn’t lost on Jay Hill.

The Weber State coach just doesn’t see what the top-ranked Dukes’ last 24 games have to do with their next one – a matchup with Hill’s Wildcats in the FCS quarterfinals on Friday night in the first meeting between the programs.

“They’ve got a 24-game win streak and they’ve been the best team in the country for the last two years and we understand that, but the last 24 games don’t matter,” Hill said. “All that matters is this one coming up and that’s how we’ll approach it.”

Although Hill is trying to take the focus off the intimidating win streak for his players, the fourth-year coach should take notice at the dominating fashion reigning national champion James Madison has been obliterating its opponents.

The Dukes (12-0) have the FCS’ top-ranked scoring defense, yielding just 8.8 points per game and have allowed only two opponents to score multiple offensive touchdowns in a contest. No team has scored more than 14 against them and their last five opponents have combined for a measly 26 points. They don’t break when they’re deep in their own territory, either, allowing five touchdowns on 16 opponents’ trips inside the red zone.

In last Saturday’s 26-7 second-round win over Stony Brook, JMU gave up 94 first-half yards to go into the break with a 19-0 lead. Jordan Brown, Raven Greene, Rashad Robinson, Curtis Oliver and Jimmy Moreland each had one interception giving the CAA Football champions an FCS-best 24 on the season. And it’s not like that trouncing came against an inferior offense. The Seawolves were coming off a 59-point performance in the first round and had just one interception in their previous six games – all wins.

“You want opportunities like this,” said Hill, who signed an extension Wednesday to stay at Weber State through the 2023 season. “We wanted a really good opponent in the first round and we got it. We wanted an opportunity at Southern Utah because we knew that’s who was waiting.”

Hill has a pretty stout defense of his own, something Southern Utah found out last weekend.

Facing the team which had finished tied atop the Big Sky with the 11th-ranked Wildcats (11-2) but earned the conference’s automatic bid to the playoffs by beating them on Oct. 14, Weber State enacted some revenge with a 30-13 win. The Wildcats held their in-state rival, which had scored 47, 47 and 48 in its previous three games, to 38 yards and zero points after halftime. They racked up 11 more tackles for loss and six sacks, with Cardon Malan accounting for three QB takedowns.

That kind of domination has been a strength all season for Weber State, which ranks seventh in the FCS in tackles for loss and eighth in sacks. The Wildcats had six players named to either the Big Sky’s first or second team, led by cornerback Taron Johnson, the conference’s defensive player of the year.

“The Big Sky All-Conference team is basically playing defense for Weber State,” James Madison coach Mike Houston said. “We will have to play as well as we’ve played all year on offense to have success.”

Although Houston gave high praise to Weber State’s defense, the Dukes had six players named to the All-CAA First Team, and it was announced Tuesday that end Andrew Ankrah has finished in the top three in voting for the 2017 STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award.

While the Wildcats, who rank 10th nationally in opponent scoring at 16.5 points per game, received another outstanding performance from their defense last week, quarterback Stefan Cantwell put together one of his best efforts of the season. The senior totaled three touchdowns, throwing for 299 yards and running for 105 as Weber State more than doubled SUU in total yards – 447-219.

“He plays like a very mature, experienced football player,” Houston said of Cantwell. “He’s the guy that everything revolves around offensively.”

Cantwell’s favorite target is tight end Andrew Vollert, an All-Big Sky first-team selection who can create matchup problems with his size and speed.

“They do a lot of formation and motion to get matchups and then use the tight end in the passing game,” Houston said. “They flex him out wide they move all over the place. So we’ve seen stuff like this in the past in our league but they certainly do a great job of moving him around and getting him the football.”

Last week’s victory pushed the Wildcats’ win streak to seven games and was their 11th of the season, establishing a single-season program record. Replicating the success Cantwell had last week won’t be easy against a JMU front which allows just 2.5 yards per carry, 84.3 rushing yards per game and ranks second in the FCS in sacks.

James Madison’s offense also faces some big challenges and last week’s showing doesn’t provide a great deal of optimism.

The offense was bailed out by the defense after being held to a season-low 304 yards, with the offensive line struggling to create any lanes to run and keeping quarterback Bryan Schor upright. Top rusher Trai Sharp finished with six yards on five attempts, No. 2 back Marcus Marshall gained 15 yards on five carries, while Schor managed to overcome a season-high five sacks to complete 26 of 35 passes for 255 yards and two TDs.

Schor is already the JMU career leader with 59 touchdown passes and is 115 passing yards away from becoming the school’s all-time leader in that category as well.

The Dukes, who have won all 16 home games they’ve played since the start of last season, can become just the second FCS team ever to win 25 consecutive games, but again, Hill isn’t fretting about all those wins JMU has racked up in the past.

“They’re an outstanding football team,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to say one thing this week to motivate these players to practice hard and go out and get this.”