Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend
Struggle or shootout?
JMU, UR sport great defenses, but past matchups have piled up points
There’s been a recurring theme in recent James Madison vs. Richmond football matchups: points. And a lot of them.
The Dukes scored 48 points (48-6 win) the last time the two teams met, in November 2019, and 63 points (63-10 win) the
year before that.
The teams combined for 90 points in 2016 (47-43 JMU win), 108 points in 2015 (59-49 Richmond win), 75 points in 2014 (55-20 JMU win) and 69 points in 2013 (38-31 JMU win).
They’ll meet for the 38th time overall Saturday at JMU, though the first time ever in the spring. The stakes are high, with the Dukes (4-0, 2-0 Colonial Athletic
Association) ranked No. 1 in the nation in FCS, the Spiders (3-0, 3-0) ranked No. 11 and both teams eyeing the Colonial Athletic Association’s automatic bid to the playoffs.
Will the high-scoring trend continue, or will it be more of a defensive grind when the rivals kick off at 2 p.m. at Bridgeforth Stadium?
Though Saturday will mark
the biggest test either team has had thus far in the truncated spring season, both possess top-10 defenses. JMU is No. 1 in the nation, holding opponents to 169.5 total yards per game. Richmond is No. 7 in the nation, limiting teams to 243.3 total yards per game.
Neither team has allowed more than 17 points this year.
“Tremendous challenge defensively, they really fly around. They play with an attitude. They’re very well coached.” JMU coach Curt Cignetti, on facing Richmond’s defense
So if there are offensive fireworks Saturday, it’d be a first against either defense.
“Tremendous challenge defensively, they really fly around,” JMU coach Curt Cignetti said of Richmond’s defense. “They play with an attitude. They’re very well coached.”
Saturday will be the third time in the past seven seasons that JMU and Richmond will meet with both teams ranked in the top 15 of the STATS FCS Top 25. Richmond was No. 6 and JMU No. 7 in the 2016 matchup, and JMU was
No. 4 and Richmond was No. 11 in the 2015 matchup.
Cignetti characterized this year’s Richmond team as the best he will have faced since he’s been in the CAA, by far. Now in his second season at JMU, Cignetti faced Richmond as the coach at CAA member Elon in 2017 and 2018, both wins, before he faced the Spiders with the Dukes in 2019.
On defense, Richmond returned three 2019 CAA all-conference performers this year in linebacker Tyler Dressler (first team), defensive tackle Kobie Turner (third team) and linebacker Tristan Wheeler (third team).
Wheeler’s rate of nine tackles per game (27 total) is second in the CAA, Turner is second among the Spiders with four tackles for loss and Dressler is second on the team with 16 tackles.
And defensive end Darius Reynolds has performed at an all-conference level. He has five sacks, which leads the CAA. And his rate of 1.67 sacks per game is second in the country.
Cornerback Tyrek Funderburk has two interceptions through the Spiders’ three games.
Who JMU will start at quarterback Saturday is still to be determined, whether Cole Johnson (who’s started all four of the Dukes’ games) or Gage Moloney (who was slated to start the Dukes’ last game, but was unavailable). But JMU’s abundant running back depth has allowed the Dukes to rack up 259 yards per game on the ground, tops in the CAA and fourth in the country.
The Spiders have allowed just 55 rushing yards per game thus far.
“We know they can all play, all the backs are solid backs. They’re all pretty lethal,” Wheeler said. “And then there are two quarterbacks who can play as well. So we’re preparing for anything. And whatever comes out, we’re going to handle it and get the job done.”
JMU’s success on defense this year has come despite returning just three starters: defensive end Mike Greene (Highland Springs), cornerback Wesley McCormick and safety Wayne Davis.
The Dukes pitched a shutout in their season opener, 52-0 over Morehead State, and registered second-half shutouts against Robert Morris and Elon.
Greene has 7.5 tackles for loss, and the rate of 1.9 per game are tied for 16th in the country. McCormick and Davis have each nabbed interceptions. Safety Que Reid has a pair of them.
JMU has allowed just 131.5 pass yards per game (seventh nationally) and 38 rushing yards per game (second nationally).
“Team speed. It seems like they never run out of that,” Richmond coach Russ Huesman said, speaking on the Dukes’ defense. “No matter, they lose nine or 10 guys guys on the defensive side of the ball. And the guys they plug in there can run, they’re physical on defense.”
Countering that will be a Richmond offense led by versatile fifth-year senior quarterback Joe Mancuso, who’s thrown for 581 yards and six touchdowns, with no interceptions, and has run for another 171 yards and a touchdown.
The multiplicity of the Spiders’ scheme, in terms of formations and tempo, make them a challenge to prepare for.
“They have a lot of different schemes, a lot of draw schemes, a lot of power — whole bunch of everything,” Greene said. “But we just got to stick to our fundamentals and play smart.”
JMU and Richmond will enter this weekend’s game perhaps as prepared for each other as two teams can be, with this their third go at a game, after their previous two scheduled matchups this year were nixed because of COVID-19 issues.
Will that lend itself to plenty more of those points, or a battle of attrition? The Dukes and Spiders will find out Saturday afternoon.
“One play at a time,” Cignetti said. “It’s going to be whoever plays the best and capitalizes on their opportunities.”
Note: Under the most recent Virginia state COVID-19 guidelines, JMU will permit 30% spectator capacity in 24,877-seat Bridgeforth Stadium.