Don’t be surprised if James Madison University isn’t exactly intimidated to go to North Carolina this Saturday.
Don’t be shocked if an FCS team fearlessly confronts a Tar Heel team looking for a repeat trip to the ACC title game.
The Dukes have a history of knocking off FBS opponents, including a win at SMU last year. This season JMU, ranked No. 8 in the latest FCS coaches’ poll, is averaging a salty 68 points and 562 yards per game. The Dukes’ offense is so good that former South Carolina quarterback Connor Mitch, who led the Gamecocks to victory against North Carolina last season, can’t crack the starting lineup since transferring to JMU. Junior Bryan Schor has held down the first-string job.
We wrote over the summer that perhaps JMU was outgrowing the FCS and could land in an FBS conference once the next round of realignment shakes out. This weekend offers an opportunity for the Dukes to make another statement to that effect.
UNC coach Larry Fedora knows playing an FCS team can be a bit like walking into a trap, and despite having about 20 fewer scholarships available, some are just as good as many FBS teams. The FCS schools, for their part, come in with little to lose and the possibility of taking home both a paycheck and a program-defining victory.
“I would say the FCS team is better in some cases,” Fedora said. “You could pick out four or five FCS schools and match them up against Division I schools and you know that the FCS team will win. There are some really good ones out there.”
The Dukes, who won at then-No. 13 Virginia Tech in 2010, fall into that category.
The Tar Heels enter 1-1 after opening with a loss to Georgia and rebounding with a win against Illinois. However, UNC is allowing nearly 400 yards per game and getting gouged on the ground for more 235 yards per game and five yards per carry. That certainly has to be an area of concern for UNC coach Larry Fedora, with JMU bringing a running back tandem that is one of the nation’s best, regardless of level.
The Dukes have rushed for 835 yards, 45 first downs and 13 touchdowns through two games. Tailbacks Cardon Johnson and Khalid Abdullah will share the bulk of the carries, playing behind an athletic offensive line that averages 300 pounds.
“They run the football,” Fedora said.
“They’ve rushed for 800 and something yards in two games. That’s hard to get done in practice against air. That’s a lot of yardage, so they’ve had success running the football in the first two weeks. They are serious about it. When you score 136 points in the first two games, you’re hitting on a lot of cylinders early in the season.”
The Dukes have also been clicking on defense, and special teams threat Rashard Davis has returned punts for touchdowns in each game. Sack master Andrew Ankraw has a knack for causing turnovers.
All this means Fedora and Co. know the Heels must be ready Saturday.
“If you look at the last two weeks, there’s been FCS teams beat Division I teams each week the last two weeks of this season,” he said. “No matter what you want to think about it, this is a team that we have to prepare for and that we have to do a good job against.
“They will come in here and their plan will be to beat us.”