I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say this is one of my favorite years to do the Staring Down The Musket... feature. Other than Marshall and Maryland, the opponents on the 2012 schedule are largely unfamiliar. So, I get to reach out to new blogs and make new friends to tailgate with, all the while learning about opposing programs/teams/fans/etc. It's a win-win-win. This week's victim participants are Rob and Todd from JMU Sports Blog (yeah, we linked to them previously for my answers to their questions). They seem like genuinely good guys who are passionate about JMU sports and knowledgeable about college football and WVU in general. I'll be looking forward to sharing a beer with them before the game. And, without further adieu:
Country Roads: Most WVU fans probably don't know much about the Dukes, other than they surprised the country with a big win over Virginia Tech a couple years ago and boast a shiny new stadium expansion just off I-81 in Harrisonburg. So give us a short description of what James Madison is about as a team (this year's version), as a program (where have you come from, and where are you headed), and as a fanbase (can I look forward to enjoying a Sam Adams Octoberfest with you guys, or do I need to pack my concealed weapons permit and Glock to protect myself?).
JMU Sports Blog: We're not really sure what this year's JMU team is all about. In years past JMU has liked to run the ball, run the ball a little bit more, throw a bubble screen, and then go back to the running the ball. Thus far, this year's team has been a little more dynamic on offense and actually thrown the ball. It's come against incredibly weak competition though, so there is still a very real chance that the Dukes will return to their "run to set up the run" philosophy come CAA play. On paper, they've got great depth at RB, an experienced QB, and some talented guys who can catch the ball. Defense has always been the Dukes calling card and this year's D looks typically solid. The expectation is that the offense should put up more points this year and the team won't need to depend on shutting down the other team to win.
The program as a whole really came into its own when Mickey Matthews took over as head coach. It started on its current trajectory with the 2004 run to the 1-AA National Championship. That created some tremendous momentum and generated a ton of fan support. Things grew to the point where JMU now has arguably the top facilities in the FCS and is near the top of the list in terms of FCS attendance. It also has a great gameday experience and a pretty solid tailgating scene. All of those things were unthinkable when we were on campus. Hardly anyone cared about the football program and the few people who did (like us) could just casually stroll into the stadium and pick out seats anywhere on Saturdays. The program has sent a number of players (Gary Clark, Charles Haley, er Scott Norwood) onto successful NFL careers, but it really didn't have much of a following. Now the program has some great support and a sizeable portion of the fanbase clamoring for a move up to the FBS (including a few on the fringes who are obsessed beyond reason).
You'll have no shortage of JMU fans willing to share beers with you. JMU folks are generally pretty laid back and a lot of fun. We've got our crazies like every other fanbase, but 99% of the people going on Saturday will be great to be around and excited to meet some WVU fans.
CR: JMU is currently 2-0 and coming off lopsided victories over St. Francis (PA) 55-7, and Alcorn State 42-3. While those two wins appear impressive to the casual observer, they could have been the result of poor competition, a bit of luck, or a simply dominant JMU squad. Which of the three is the best description, and should WVU fans be nervous about the outcome on Saturday?
JMUSB: We'd love to say it's because the Dukes are simply dominant, but the truth is that St. Francis and Alcorn State are terrible. JMU scheduled them for the same reason WVU scheduled JMU, to hopefully build some momentum by grabbing a few easy victories before conference play starts. With that being said, JMU has looked pretty good. Last year's JMU team struggled to beat the cupcakes on its schedule, but still was able to make it to the playoffs. This year's team has taken care of business with ease and has fans thinking it could be a special year. WVU fans probably don't have any reason to be nervous, but this JMU team is probably better than the 2010 team that beat VA Tech in 2010. Of course this year's WVU team seems to be way better than that Tech team as well. Anything can happen though, right?
CR: Just glancing at box scores from the first two games, QB Justin Thorpe and RB Dae'Quan Scott appear to carry almost the entire load offensively, both rushing for nearly identical numbers in both games and hooking up in the air enough to keep defenses honest. Is there anyone else WVU needs to worry about when JMU is on offense? And what seems to be the best way to stop the Dukes' balanced attack?
JMUSB: Scott turned an ankle and might not even suit up on Saturday, so for JMU's sake their better be someone else WVU needs to worry about. Scott and Thorpe are both very talented and are real difference makers for JMU. They both played QB in high school and were recruited by JMU because of their skill running the ball. Thorpe has progressed as a passer, but he still looks more comfortable tucking and running at times. Scott played some wildcat QB as a redshirt freshman before converting to running back full time. He's been the key to the offense so far, but JMU has good depth behind him. Jordan Anderson ran for over 850 yards as the #2 back last year, and even eclipsed the 200 yard mark one game. He should get some carries on Saturday. Dejor Simmons is a speedy redshirt freshman who looked good in mop up duty week 1 and Hykeem Brodie, a transfer from Penn State, has displayed some talent in the first two games. JMU's tight end, Brian Barlow, has good hands and can work the middle of the field. We're still not sure if we believe in the Dukes' attack really is balanced, but if WVU can take away the run and force Thorpe to air it out, things could be much easier for the Mountaineers.
CR: I hope you guys like fireworks, because you're probably going to see a lot of them when WVU is on offense. In the last 2 games, the Mountaineers have scored a total of 20 touchdowns and put up somewhere in the neighborhood of 1100 yards of total offense. And while teams like Pitt and Cincinnati managed to slow down Dana Holgorsen's version of the air raid, things appear to be clicking on a whole new level. On the other hand, JMU flat shut down both teams they played so far. How do you expect to match up defensively when the teams march onto the FedEx Field turf?
JMUSB: Yeah, we're well aware of WVU's offense. As JMU's coach said the Mountaineers "made the scoreboard look like a pinball machine the numbers were turning so fast" against Clemson. JMU defense hasn't allowed a lot of points, but they've really struggled to pressure the QB. They didn't even put a hit on the QB in week 1 and only managed 2 sacks against an Alcorn State team that was clearly over-matched. It's great that they've shut teams down through 2 weeks, but those teams sort of sucked. They need to elevate their game big time this weekend to have a chance. We expect them to dial up some blitzes and try to put some hits on Geno Smith any chance they get. And then they're going to need to catch a few breaks and force some turnovers. If they don't and Geno gets time, it could get ugly.
CR: My favorite time - predictions! The Mountaineers and Dukes have met before, with the Mounties taking a 45-10 contest on the strength of two Rasheed Marshall to (the late) Chris Henry touchdown passes. The passing attack has uh, evolved since then but honestly, I could see a similar score (I could also see 63-28) this time. Vegas lists WVU as a 44-point favorite. Who ya got, and what's the final score?
JMUSB: And we like to say that little 35 point defeat in 2004 motivated JMU and helped propel them to the FCS National Championship, so it wasn't all bad. The double-edged sword of JMU being known for upsetting VA Tech is that it's harder for them to sneak up on big teams now. In the past there was probably more of a chance the WVU would lose focus or overlook them completely. We doubt that's going to happen...which means JMU will probably only win by a touchdown or two. Let's say 35-21 Dukes. And we'll leave it up to you to determine if we're being serious or just superstitiously optimistic (we "predicted" a win over VA Tech to).
Thanks again to Rob and Todd for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to follow them on Twitter (@JMUSportsBlog).