No ESPN, but JMU-Richmond still just as big
(STATS) - James Madison was near the top of the FCS world - and the center of the college football universe - heading into its last meeting with Richmond.
The Dukes were 7-0 and ranked fourth in the STATS FCS Top 25 the morning that the ESPN College GameDay crew descended upon the Shenandoah Valley on Oct. 24, 2015. But what began as a watershed moment in program history ended as a nightmare befitting of the Halloween season. The Spiders upstaged JMU's usually unstoppable offense by rolling up a school-record 720 yards, and the Dukes lost All-America quarterback Vad Lee to a season-ending knee injury on the way to a deflating 59-49 loss.
Though it still managed a No. 5 overall playoff seed and a share of the CAA Football title with Richmond and William & Mary, JMU never really recovered. A stunning upset loss at home to Colgate in the second round concluded a string of three defeats in five games and the Dukes' once-viable national championship hopes.
"It's definitely something that's sat in our hearts for a little while now," quarterback Bryan Schor said of last year's Richmond game.
Lee and head coach Everett Withers are no longer around, and Lee Corso won't be donning any costumes of one of the nation's founding fathers when the two CAA powers renew their rivalry Saturday at Richmond's Robins Stadium. Still, plenty of parallels exist between this matchup and last year's historic clash.
Seventh-ranked JMU (7-1, 5-0) has remained among the nation's most explosive teams with Schor at the controls and Mike Houston now calling the shots, ranking in the top four in the FCS in scoring (49.4 ppg), total offense (529.0 ypg), rushing (316.4 ypg) and third-down conversion percentage (56.6). The Dukes are ahead of last season's record-setting numbers in each of those categories.
JMU can't be accused of looking ahead to this revenge opportunity, either, after displaying remarkable focus and precision in last Saturday's 84-7 pummeling of Rhode Island. Schor (1,633 passing yards, 15 TDs, 3 INTs) set a school record by completing 21 of 22 passes for a career-high 309 yards and five touchdowns as the Dukes established a new CAA mark for points in a conference game.
"What (Schor) did last week was extraordinary," Spiders coach Danny Rocco. "They were firing on all cylinders last week. He's the right guy right there running that ship and they're having a great season.
"This is obviously an extremely talented team and we're going to have to play a really good football game here, a real clean football game, if we expect to win here on Saturday."
Richmond's overall results have been considerably less one-sided than those of the Dukes, who've outscored opponents 395-194 thus far. But what the No. 6 Spiders (7-1, 4-1) have lacked in gaudy statistics, they've more than made up for in resiliency.
UR, listed two spots behind JMU at No. 7 in the initial FCS selection committee playoff rankings, enters Saturday's showdown having won five straight. It has trailed or been tied in the second half of three of those victories and overcome several substantial personnel losses, most notably season-ending injuries to All-American safety David Jones and running backs Gordon Collins and Xavier Goodall.
"I think the one thing this group has is this belief, this conviction, this real understanding that we can do it," Rocco said. "And I think with that comes a little higher expectation of what we want to be able to do each and every week."
A defense anchored by seniors Winston Craig (7.5 sacks, 10 TFL) and Omar Howard (49 tackles, 7 TFL) may pose the biggest challenge yet for Schor and JMU. Richmond has yielded an FCS-low 131.9 passing yards per game, garnered 12 interceptions and allowed seven points over the last two wins, including a home shutout of nationally ranked Villanova on Oct. 15.
The Dukes have been getting better on that side of the ball as well. A unit coordinated by Bob Trott, who spent the previous six seasons at Richmond in the same role, limited overmatched Rhode Island to 109 total yards and recorded five interceptions - two of which were returned for touchdowns.
"It's something we've seen coming because we practice better every week, the kids are understanding where they fit more every week, they're gaining more confidence in their preparation every week," Houston said. "I think it's a culmination of their hard work and the hard work of our defensive staff that we're playing at the level we are right now."
The Dukes still figure to have their hands full with Richmond's balanced attack. Quarterback Kyle Lauletta (2,194 yards, 16 TDs, 8 INTs) threw for a career-high 415 yards in last year's meeting, including 204 and a touchdown to star receiver Brian Brown (53 receptions, 835 yards, 7 TDs). Redshirt freshman Deontez Thompson has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in two of the last three games.
Richmond also carries a school-record 11-game home winning streak into Saturday's marquee matchup. The Spiders' last loss at Robins Stadium came at the hands of the Dukes, a 55-20 defeat in November 2014.