By Cam Huffman
James Madison head football coach Mickey Matthews isn’t exactly giving West Virginia any bulletin board material heading into Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. matchup between the two clubs at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
On Monday’s Colonial Athletic Association Conference call, the coach of the fifth-ranked Football Championship Subdivision team in the country had nothing but praise for the Mountaineers. He went as far as to suggest that nothing the Dukes do is likely to put the slightest bit of worry into the minds of the WVU coaches.
“I’m sure they haven’t even watched our film,” said Matthews, whose team is 2-0 after a 42-3 thrashing of Alcorn State on Saturday. “I’d be surprised if they’re worried about anything we do. They’re very good, and they could have scored 100 against Marshall if they would have wanted to. I would be very surprised if anything we do concerns them.”
But WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen wasn’t buying the talk. The coach of the No. 9 Football Bowl Subdivision team in the land, according to The Associated Press, said his team had watched plenty of film on the Dukes, and there are a number of concerns about what JMU will do on Saturday.
“I don’t agree with that,” said Holgorsen when told of Matthews’ comments. “You can put (the film) on last year where they were a top 10 team and led their conference in every single defensive category. We’re anticipating this being a bigger challenge than what we faced a week ago (when the Mountaineers knocked off Marshall 69-34 in the season opener).
“They’re sound. They’re a good ball club,” continued Holgorsen, who has watched his offense post 139 points in its last two games, including the 70-33 pounding of Clemson in the Orange Bowl that brought his first year at WVU to a close. “Mickey Matthews has been there for going on 14 years now, and he’s built one of the top I-AA (FCS) programs in the country. They’re sound on all three sides of the ball. They’ve got half their returners coming back, and their schemes, they’ve been doing the same things for a long time. They believe in what they’re doing.”
Holgorsen said the first thing that stands out when watching the JMU film was the effort that the team gives on the field. On top of that, the Dukes have some pretty strong weapons on offense, beginning with running back Dae’Quan Scott and quarterback Justin Thorpe.
Scott left last week’s game with an ankle injury, and Matthews suggested he might not play in Saturday’s game. But Holgorsen said the Mountaineers will prepare for what they’ve seen on film, including the speedy running back.
“Offensively, they have a good 1-2 threat with their quarterback and running back,” said Holgorsen. “Both have had two tremendous games to start the season. They want them to touch the ball quite a bit. The quarterback’s a threat to both throw it and run it. They’ve got big o-linemen and a tight end they play with about 80 percent of the time. They want to control the ball. They want to run the ball. Obviously, they’re going to try to get us with some play-action stuff down field. We’ll have to tackle well, and that’s one of the things coming out of the first game that we’re going to have to improve on.”
Defensively, Matthews said his team’s goals are very basic when it comes to shutting down a WVU offense that’s one of the best in the country.
“I don’t really know if you can get ready for those guys,” he said. “You’re competing against a guy (WVU quarterback Geno Smith) who might win the Heisman Trophy. I don’t know if he’ll win it, but he’ll certainly get invited to New York.
“Your first objective is to get them to punt. If you can make them punt, you feel like you’re doing well. They don’t like to punt.”
Holgorsen, though, doesn’t expect his offense to function as if it’s playing without a defense on the field.
“Defensively, that’s what they’re known for,” said Holgorsen of a JMU unit that includes preseason All-CAA linebacker Stephon Robertson. “They’ve been a top 20 team defensively for as long as Coach Matthews has been there. The middle linebacker is as good a player as I’ve seen on tape in quite some time. He makes a ton of tackles and he’s extremely active. Their safeties are good, and they’re sound in what they do. They’ve only missed 10 tackles in two games. I wish we could say that about our defense.”
The other worry for Holgorsen is keeping his team from believing all the talk, including that from Matthews, and overlooking the Dukes.
JMU has a proud history of playing up a level against FBS opponents. In 2010, the Dukes went into Blacksburg and knocked off No. 13 Virginia Tech 21-16. A year earlier, Matthews’ club took Maryland to overtime in College Park, before falling 38-35.
“They’ve played teams in the FBS for years, and they’ve done well,” said Holgorsen. “They’re used to being in these games and they’re going to come in expecting to win. Our guys need to counter.
“We talked about it yesterday quite a bit. We also talked about the fact that already this year there have been six FCS teams that have beaten FBS teams. It’s going to happen again, and we need to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen to us.”
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Saturday’s game is important for both teams for very different reasons.
For the Dukes, it’s a chance to make some noise on a national level against what’s considered to be one of the country’s top teams. For the coaching staff, that can create some headaches, but Matthews admitted it will be fun for the fans.
“You’d think this is the Super Bowl or something we’re playing,” he said. “It’s a good game, and we’re going to play as hard as we can, but when I came to work in July, they had a billboard saying how many days it was until the WVU game.
“It’s a good opportunity for our people to go up there. It will be a lot of fun, and we’re looking forward to it.”
For WVU, the appeal is in what the game could do for recruiting in an area of the country that produces plenty of college football talent.
“That’s important to us,” Holgorsen admitted. “That’s one reason why we wanted to play this game. Next year, we’re playing Maryland over in the Ravens’ stadium. We have a game with BYU in, I think, 2015 (actually 2016) that’s over there (at FedEx Field). Administratively, it’s something that is important to (athletic director) Oliver (Luck) and (WVU president) Dr. (James) Clements to have a presence there.
“It’s three hours down the road, and with Baltimore and D.C. being such a good recruiting base, we’ve got a guy there full-time. We’ve got a bunch of players out of that area each and every year. Tavon Austin is from there, and having a presence there is extremely important to the program.”
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The game also gives WVU a chance to honor one of its all-time greats in Hall of Famer Sam Huff.
The former Mountaineer played for the Washington Redskins and later became a radio announcer with the Washington, D.C. club. With Saturday’s game being played in the Redskins home stadium, the game has been designated as Sam Huff Day, and Huff will be honored in festivities throughout the game.
Holgorsen, who is still fairly new to the Mountain State, said he’s already gained an appreciation for what the Marion County native means inside the state’s borders.
“I was at an event with him over in Washington, D.C., this summer. I got to know him a little bit then and hung out with him for a while,” said Holgorsen. “(He’s a) great guy and a tremendous legend here in West Virginia. He was a great player here, and I think it’s going to be awesome that he’s going to be able to attend the game.”
The WVU coach said his players also understand that they’ll be playing in front of, and perhaps even representing, an icon of the game.
“His name and number is up in the stadium,” said Holgorsen of one of only two retired numbers in WVU’s football history. “It’s been so long ago, a lot of our players don’t remember the footage or anything, but they understand who he is and what he means to the program.”
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The game time for WVU’s Sept. 22 meeting with Maryland in Morgantown was announced Monday. The Mountaineers and Terrapins will play at noon in a game that will be broadcast on the FX television network.
— E-mail: chuffman@