Football Midweek Update: College prepares for no. 1 JMU

After nine weeks in which the College of William and Mary has surpassed all expectations while compiling a 7-2 record and no. 12 national ranking, the 2008 season now boils down to two crucial, rivalry games.

This weekend, in particular, will be the contest for which everyone has been waiting for well over a month as the Tribe travels to Harrisonburg, Virginia to take on no. 1 James Madison University. Always a big rivalry when the two schools meet, Saturday will be no different and Bridgeforth Stadium should be absolutely electric in intensity.

With a JMU win, the Dukes will clinch the CAA regular season title; a Tribe victory will vault the College into the playoffs and give them a shot at a CAA title of their own a week later against the University of Richmond.

On to this week’s news:

– First off the bat, injured senior linebacker Josh Rutter is out again for the fourth straight week, while his classmate and fellow captain, wideout Elliott Mack, could return to the field for the first time since the Towson game.

“There is a chance for Elliott, but we have to wait and see how the week progresses,” Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said.

According to junior wide receiver D.J. McAulay, Mack has been running in practice and is frantically preparing to play.

“Elliot’s been running and he’s been moving around,” McAulay said. “The physicians are definitely trying to get him ready for this game. Going against JMU you would like to have a healthy team with all our starters and he would definitely add to the offense.”

– Overall, the Tribe is fully prepared for this week’s JMU game and the excitement among the squad is palpable.

“They’re no. 1 and it’s a sellout game and the whole atmosphere is going to be tremendous,” McAulay said. “You want to play in those kinds of games.”

For many of the program’s fifth year players, the contest will take on a more personal touch. Seniors such as quarterback Jake Phillips were on campus for a redshirt year in 2004, the season which saw a pair of close matchups between JMU and the College. In the first game that season, the 7-2 Tribe went into Harrisonburg and downed an 8-1 Dukes squad to win the CAA title on a last second field goal. Several weeks later, the two programs met again in the national semifinals. In the first ever night game at Zable Stadium, JMU prevailed on a cold and wet evening on another game winning kick.

The Tribe win in particular has stuck with Phillips.

“I wasn’t playing, Lang [Campbell] was starting and I remember going up there and watching the game,” he said. “The atmosphere was amazing and it was a big time game. Every play we all had our eyes on the field as any play could have made a difference.

“Whenever the schedules come out, it’s one game that you circle on your calendar immediately. To have this be a meaningful game and to have both of us ranked at the top of the country, it’s going to be extra special for a lot of guys. For us fifth year guys we definitely remember that field goal to beat us [in 2004], so there’s a bit of bad blood and a little bit of a bad taste in our mouths.”

Phillips was unconcerned about playing in front of what will be a loud and passionate JMU home crowd.

“The way the environment is up there and the atmosphere, it’s so awesome for college football and that’s what you want at every game,” he said. “You want it to be loud and hectic the whole game and I’m excited for it because I think this team can really thrive under the pressure.”

– The chief concern for the Tribe against JMU will be stopping the Dukes’ prolific offensive and dynamic quarterback Rodney Landers, possibly the best player in the nation outside the FBS.

“There’s a reason why JMU is no. 1 in the nation and one of those is Landers,” Laycock said. “We had a really tough time with him last year and a lot of other people have had a tough time with him this year. That’s going to be a key for us defensively to control him. We have to work hard to be in position and you can’t expect one guy to take him down.”

The Tribe will also need to slow punt returner Scotty McGee, a threat to go the distance after any touch of the football. McGee returned a punt to the end zone on the final play of JMU’s contest with Richmond to give the Dukes a dramatic last-second win, but Laycock believes his squad might have the key to stopping the elusive speedster.

“We’re going to try not to punt,” he said.

– On the offensive side of the ball for the College, keep an eye out for two things.

In the previous two contests, Phillips has taken a successful shot down the field to McAulay, completing 60+ yard pass plays against both Towson University and Northeastern University early in the game. Expect to see Laycock dial McAulay’s number on a deep bomb at least once in the first quarter Saturday.

Additionally, watch for junior quarterback R.J. Archer to possibly line up under center with Phillips split out wide. The College ran this formation against Towson and picked up six yards on a designed Archer run. However, the play, ran in garbage time of the Tribe’s blowout win, was very possibly run in preparation for use at a key moment of either the JMU or Richmond games. If the College finds itself in a key third or fourth down play, keep an eye out for Archer.

– Overall, given JMU’s previous results against top conference teams (last second wins at Richmond and Villanova), expect this game to be a close, hard fought contest. Landers could feature prominently under center at a great number of FBS schools (and probably even some BCS ones, too) and I don’t see the Tribe holding the Dukes’ offense to under 30 points.

However, Phillips has been absolutely electrifying since he sat out the Villanova game due to a foot injury and the College can definitely keep pace with JMU if they play four solid quarters of football. Add in the constant intensity of this matchup and we should see a great football game. I think this one could very possibly come down to the final possession with Phillips looking to knock off his second top-5 team with a touchdown pass in the waning seconds.


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