The James Madison Dukes will come to Chapel Hill this Saturday in what should be a buzzing Kenan Memorial Stadium. With the first two games of the season being road games, this will be our first chance to see how Carolina performs at home. One of two FCS teams on the schedule this year, JMU comes in ranked 8th in the country in the coaches poll. However, don't let the “FCS” in that sentence fool you. Because of some style match-ups between the Heels and Dukes on both sides of the ball, Saturday’s game could test some of UNC’s weaker areas.
At 2-0 so far on the season, JMU is tied for the top spot in the Colonial Athletic Association. They flat out destroyed Morehead State 80-7 two weeks go, and handled Central Connecticut State 56-21 this past week. As you know, those teams aren’t two of college football’s powerhouses by any means, but the games show that JMU knows how to score. Carolina will be James Madison’s toughest opponent in 2016 by far, but they’re feeling pretty good about Saturday’s matchup. These are from first year head coach Mike Houston:
"They're probably a little bit faster than us, tempo-wise. We have similar schemes offensively and defensively, which will help us."— JMU Football (@JMUFootball) September 13, 2016
"Once the ball kicks off at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, we're playing 11 on 11. We're going to go down there to compete."— JMU Football (@JMUFootball) September 13, 2016
JMU has only played UNC twice in school history, and the Heels came out on top in both. However, as a 2-0 team, I’m sure they would love to prove themselves against a FBS opponent. Former Tar Heel safety and coaching veteran Bob Trott (1973-1975) is also now in his first year as Defensive Coordinator. Certainly, Coach Trott will have his boys ready to play his alma mater. Now, let’s look at the scouting report for the Dukes.
On offense, JMU loves to run the ball. Running backs Cardon Johnson and Khalid Abdullah were two of the top five rushers in the CAA last season. In their first two games, the Dukes rushed for a combined 835 yards. If you take a look at the highlights from last week’s game against Central Connecticut State below, most of their big-yardage plays came from either handoffs, or big gains after short catches. As another point of reference, JMU scored 11 (yes, eleven) touchdowns two weeks ago against Morehead State. All 11 of them were on the ground. That should tell you something about how the Dukes operate, even when they’re having their way against a lesser opponent
This should be an interesting match up for Gene Chizik and the Carolina defense. As we all know, rush defense has been a point of concern for this team. Playing against some quality JMU backs should give the Heels a chance to further their progress in this area. Johnson and Abdullah aren't Nick Chubb (now THAT is some high quality analysis). But really, the defensive backs for the Heels just need to do their job, and they shouldn't have too much trouble. Another thing to keep in mind is that Gene Chizik hates yards after contact. The Dukes have been thriving on making defenders miss in their first two games, so look for JMU to be met with the harsh reality of a Power 5, FBS athlete in the Carolina defensive backs.
Another tidbit to keep in mind for Saturday’s game is the way the Dukes’ defense is constructed. Coming to JMU, Defensive Coordinator Bob Trott changed their defensive scheme from a 3-4 base to a 4-2-5 (Nickel) defense. This formation is commonly used to slow down an uptempo/spread offense, like the one run by Offensive Coordinator Chris Kapilovic and Larry Fedora.
James Madison allowed 403.5 yards per game on average in 2015, a defense ranked 77th in FCS. So far in 2016, JMU has given up 406 yards of offense total in two games. Again, the opponents were admittedly not the strongest. However, an improved defense relative to last year is noteworthy, and it is a confidence booster for the Dukes. Carolina should be able to move the ball against this defense by continuing to give the ball to T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood. But, they should be weary of a refocused and motivated JMU defensive unit.
Carolina isn't the only one with a punt returner. Rashard Davis, a senior wide receiver similar to Switzer, has a punt return for a touchdown in each of the last two games for the Dukes. Lucky for the Tar Heels, the special teams unit on punt coverage has been quite good. We will have to see who has the upper hand in that battle on Saturday.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
The bottom line is pretty clear. Carolina should win this game easily, it being at home against an FCS opponent. However, as we’ve seen in sports across the board, too much confidence that borders on arrogance from a better team could be a game-changer. JMU has 16 returning starters, a new coaching staff, and a 2-0 start. In a game where the Dukes have nothing to lose, it is important for the Heels to come out and take care of business. If UNC handles JMU’s running backs, and if Trubisky spreads the field with some deep strikes, Carolina has the potential to run away with this game.
My prediction: The Heels win big in their home opener, 56-17.