How quickly things change in the CAA.
For the past four years, the James Madison Dukes have dominated William and Mary, winning five-straight games against their chief rivals while remaining a perennial force atop the FCS rankings.
No more. The College’s dominating 24-3 win Saturday proved that, for this season at least, the Tribe is unquestionably the team to beat in this bitter rivalry.
The victory improved the College to 6-1 overall and 3-1 in conference, good for third place in the cutthroat CAA South. The Dukes dropped to a dismal 2-5, 0-4 — that’s dead last.
Scenes from the game were as striking as the two program’s disparate records.
There was sophomore tailback Jonathan Grimes running wild through the Dukes’s vaunted defensive line, notching 158 yards on just 20 carries. There was junior punter David Miller bombing punts well over JMU’s all-world return man, Scotty McGee.
There was senior defensive end Adrian Tracy harassing JMU quarterback Justin Thorpe all afternoon, collecting 1.5 sacks and eight tackles.
And then there was Mickey Matthews, the normally caustic JMU coach, heaping praise on his counterpart Jimmye Laycock’s squad.
“This is, by far, the best team he’s ever had since I’ve been in the league,” Matthews said. “This is the best quarterback he’s had. He’s the best quarterback we’ve played this year.”
While the veracity of that second statement is questionable — senior R.J. Archer has been excellent this season, but several of his predecessors were quite distinguished as well — the former might very well be true.
Laycock downplayed the comments in his typical form.
“I don’t know; [Matthews] is much smarter than I am,” he deadpanned.
But a close look at the Tribe, just past the midway point of its season, reveals a formidable team — one that is built for the postseason.
After seven games, the College is ranked first in the CAA in both total offense and total defense. They have the conference’s top rusher, sophomore Jonathan Grimes, who also leads the league in total yardage. Senior defensive end Adrian Tracy leads the conference in sacks, while junior David Miller is its top punter.
A strong rushing attack, a ferocious defense and the ability to pin opponents deep when your offense fails sounds just like the formula Richmond used last year on its way to a national championship.
The College is a long, long way away from thinking about the title game in Chattanooga, Tenn., but the Tribe has proven over its last several games that it is as good as anyone else in the nation.
Just as importantly, the squad improved significantly this week in several of the areas in which it has struggled this season.
Through six games, the College had committed 40 penalties for 368 yards, one of the worst marks in the conference. Against the Dukes, they had only two for 20 yards.
Similarly, they had struggled in the red zone, managing points on 81 percent of their opportunities, but only scoring touchdowns on 48 percent of those chances. On Saturday, they wasted little, notching three touchdowns on four red-zone trips, with Laycock inserting some excellent play calls to great effect.
If the Tribe can match those efforts in the weeks to come, there is no better team in the FCS.
The schedule now turns easy for the next couple of weeks. The College travels to New England to face 1-6 Rhode Island this Saturday, followed by a visit from the 2-5 Towson Tigers.
Take care of business in those two games, and the Tribe will be 8-1 entering its final stretch against no. 8 New Hampshire and no. 1 Richmond.
Eight wins should be enough to clinch a postseason bid coming out of the CAA South, and that would allow the Tribe to play those last contests for postseason seeding and a potential home playoff advantage.
But after a heartbreaking loss to Richmond last year that kept the Tribe out of the postseason, don’t expect the College to let up for even a second.
Like this week, the Tribe will have unfinished business to attend to.