The FCS nation’s eyes will be focused on Williamsburg Saturday night, when No. 6 William and Mary squares off with No. 12 James Madison in a sold out Zable Stadium.
The game’s storylines are endless: the Tribe’s uncertain quarterback situation, the long history between these two CAA behemoths, the game being the conference schedule opener.
But one thing is clear. For a Tribe squad that’s stumbled to a 2-1 record early in the season, this game could not be more important.
“We know we’ve got a big one in front of us this weekend,” head coach Jimmye Laycock said Tuesday. “We’ve got our work cut out for us for sure.”
For one, Saturday night’s game will serve as a barometer of where the Tribe — a team whose direction through three games remains unclear as can be — stands among the CAA’s, and nation’s, best, as JMU is the first FCS contender the Tribe will face in 2011.
Secondly, the matchup could provide some clarity on the Tribe’s quarterback dilemma. At the beginning of the season, the starting job was senior quarterback Mike Paulus’s to lose, and he just may have done so. After an anemic offensive showing in the first half of last week’s 13-10 win over New Haven — in which Paulus went 2 of 6 for seven yards and an interception — Laycock turned to the bench. After sophomore Brent Caprio fell from second to third on the depth chart on the heels of subpar showings at Virginia and VMI, sophomore Michael Graham — formerly a walk-on from Charlottesville — got the nod for the second half, going 6 of 11 for 112 yards and a go-ahead touchdown pass.
As for who will get the start Saturday, Laycock wouldn’t say, but all indications point to Graham.
“The quarterback situation is still a little bit up in the air obviously,” Laycock said. “I thought [Graham] played relatively well. He did what we asked him to do, his reads were good, his decision-making was good. So as we go into this week it’s going to be an evaluation process. We’ll give him more reps and we’ll see how he does.”
Whoever is under center for the Tribe will be facing a JMU defense that’s been inconsistent thus far. The Dukes’ opponents are averaging 238.3 passing yards per game and 134.7 rushing yards. But Laycock and senior full back Kyle O’Brien raved about their speed on defense.
“They run to the ball extremely aggressively,” Laycock said.
As usual, the College will try to establish a running game early to open up passing lanes. Senior running back Jonathan Grimes has rushed for 241 yards on 59 carries, averaging four per carry, and freshman tailback Keith McBride has ran for 122, averaging 4.4 yards per carry.
But JMU’s offense is what burned the Tribe in the team’s last meeting, when the then-No. 1 College fell in Harrisonburg, 30-24. The Dukes ran the wildcat all over the Tribe, attempting just one pass all game. Sophomore running back Dae’Quan Scott rushed 125 yards and three touchdowns. This year, though, Laycock says their offense is much different.
“We know how good [Scott] can be,” Laycock said. “We didn’t come close to tackling him last year. It’s a very different offense this year from them.”
With the Tribe’s offensive productivity a big question mark thus far, the team will be reliant on its effective defensive unit to slow down Scott.
The defense answered the call last week, grabbing three interceptions against New Haven and allowing just 10 points.