December 03, 2015

Colgate's victory in the opening round of the FCS playoffs sent a message that the Raiders are playing superior football to what was on display early in the season.

The downside is that there's a big difference between the rematch they won last weekend and the team they're set to visit for a second-round matchup Saturday.

Eighth-ranked James Madison is a far more difficult opponent for Colgate to handle and is well rested after earning the No. 5 seed and a first-round bye in these playoffs.

The Dukes (9-2) lost senior quarterback Vad Lee to a season-ending foot injury during a loss to Richmond in late October, but backup Bryan Schor filled in nicely while the team won two of its last three to claim a share of the Colonial Athletic Association title.

Although it was a big blow to lose Lee, who despite missing the stretch run was named the CAA Offensive Player of the Year, JMU still leads the FCS with 549.7 offensive yards per game and is second with an average of 44.8 points.

The Dukes, however, have certainly cooled a bit with Schor under center, averaging 390.3 yards and 34.3 points over the final three games of the regular season.

Lee was outstanding both through the air (2,190 yards) and on the ground (870) and had 29 total touchdowns, but Schor has led an efficient offense with a 59.8 completion percentage and 134.0 rating in his starts. He's passed for 591 yards with four touchdowns and one interception while gaining 228 on the ground with a pair of scores.

The JMU offense seems built to withstand Lee's absence with a pair of running backs - Cardon Johnson and Khalid Abdullah - who have combined for over 1,900 yards, and a deep receiver corps featuring five players with at least 23 receptions and nearly 350 yards.

Brandon Ravenel (53 catches for 649 yards) leads that group, followed by Rashard Davis (36 for 547) and tight end Deane Cheatham (32 for 448).

That balance poses a steep challenge for Colgate (8-4), which was fourth in the Patriot League with 385.1 yards allowed per game, though it led the league with 34 sacks, while defensive lineman Pat Afriyie was fourth in the nation with five forced fumbles.

"They're a very talented football team," Dukes coach Everett Withers said. "I think they're balanced in everything they do."

When the Raiders came up against a dynamic offense in their season opener, they were crushed 48-10 by Navy in Annapolis. While JMU isn't nearly on the same level as the Midshipmen, it does boast a win over FBS opponent SMU - albeit with Lee taking the snaps.

Things are also looking a bit different of late for Colgate, which overcame an 0-3 start with seven victories in its final eight regular-season games and went 6-0 in league play to win the Patriot title and an automatic bid to the playoffs.

The most telling aspect of the Raiders' impressive turnaround was their first-round win at New Hampshire last weekend. After an ugly 26-8 loss to the Wildcats at home Sept. 12, Colgate erased any lingering memories from that day with a 27-20 victory in Durham.

James Holland ran for 95 yards and a career-best four touchdowns, and the Raiders survived a fourth-quarter rally after taking a 27-6 lead in the third. New Hampshire's Sean Goldrich threw a touchdown pass and ran for another in the final quarter before Tyler Castillo all but sealed the win on an interception of Goldrich with 3:33 remaining.

The playoff win was Colgate's first since a 2003 run to the national title game.

"I have been waiting 12 years to do what we are doing today - Practice in December!" second-year Raiders coach Dan Hunt, an assistant on that '03 team, tweeted on Tuesday.

It's most likely going to be Colgate's offense that can expose the Dukes, who ranked 75th in the FCS with 398.1 yards and 73rd with 27.3 points allowed per game.

Dual-threat quarterback Jake Melville, who has passed for 2,290 yards with eight touchdowns and run for 920 with eight scores, will try to keep the JMU defense honest, while running backs Demetrius Russell (560 yards and 8 TDs), Holland (546 and 13) and John Wilkins (453 and 3) give Colgate plenty of versatility in the ground game.

"They have very talented running backs... three of them," Withers said. "This offense will be a challenge for us. It's a little bit like our offense, so it will give us an opportunity to work against each other (in practice)."

This contest marks the first meeting between the schools.

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