It only took two weeks for JMU to fully recover from a loss to Elon.
After a dramatic two-month period that saw a 15-minute game, a rescheduled home opener, an injury to an All-American and the first conference loss of the Mike Houston era, the Dukes of JMU arrived at a well-deserved bye period last week. It was pegged as a time for some offensive improvement, alongside some healing and some light recruiting.
JMU, which currently ranks No. 3 in scoring defense (9.7 ppg) and No. 4 in total defense (252.6 ypg), entered the bye following an important bounceback win at conference rival Villanova. One week after a 27-24 loss to Elon snapped JMU's record conference win streak, Madison secured a 37-0 win over the Wildcats thanks to impressive play on defense and special teams. Jimmy Moreland blocked a punt at the end of the first quarter, and D'Angelo Amos returned back-to-back punts for touchdowns in the second half to help push JMU to a blowout win .
"You just don't want to go into the bye on a two-game losing streak," Houston said last week at his regular press luncheon. "It was really important for us to get a win at that point in the season."
Madison used the bye as a reset, allowing a restful period for key starters — DT Adeeb Atariwa, LB Landan Word, TE Clayton Cheatham — who had all been suffering from minor or moderately severe injuries. All three players should be available this week.
But a bye doesn't necessarily translate to a complete free-for-all for Houston and his staff, who used the gameless week to sharpen the team's offensive consistency. Last week's practices also allowed for some rehearsal involving special circumstance scenarios, trick plays and more.
"Tuesday and Wednesday, we went pretty hard. On Thusday, we tried to work some different things, things you don't necessarily get the chance to work on a week-to-week basis," Houston said. "Special situations. Late game stuff. We went back, preseason camp style, and worked some live stuff on onside kicks and hands team. We worked a lot of tempo for our offense and our defense to prepare us for situations late in ball games… We tried to attack a lot of different situations and fundamental and schematical things throughout the week."
JMU made the most of its bye week by improving the product the team puts out on the field, but the best parts of the week actually stemmed from events the Dukes had no control over. Since the home loss to Elon back on Oct. 6, Madison needed a loss from Maine, as well as the Phoenix themselves, to regain control of the Colonial race. Before the calendar even flipped to November, the Dukes got both.
Maine had yet to lose a game in Colonial play, and because the Black Bears aren't on Madison's schedule, JMU needed another conference mate to hand them a loss. It got the help it needed from in-state rival William & Mary.
This is the last piece of the puzzle #JMU needed to be back in the driver’s seat for at least a share of the #CAAFB title. Towson now the lone undefeated, and the Dukes close the regular season in Maryland. https://t.co/cihPKcSSeN
— Chase Kiddy (@chaseakiddy) October 20, 2018
As for Elon, the Phoenix still own the head-to-head win over JMU, but because the CAA determines its champion primarily by winning percentage, and because Hurricane Florence canceled Elon's game with William & Mary, the Phoenix were disadvantaged following their Oct. 13 loss at Delaware. One-loss Elon is mathematically unable to rank ahead of any other one-loss CAA team, regardless of any head-to-head advantages, because of its abbreviated seven-game conference schedule.
Towson, the only team still undefeated in CAA play, is currently in first place in the Colonial. The Tigers go to Delaware this weekend and close with JMU in Maryland on Nov. 17.
With all the carnage piling up around it, JMU's bye week was about as good as could have been hoped for. But the party ended on Monday, as Houston has begun preparing his team for a tough, physical matchup with growing rival Stony Brook. The Seawolves are coming off a 52-14 annihilation of high-flying Rhode Island and will want to avenge a 2017 playoff loss that saw quarterback Joe Carbone throw five interceptions.
"Stony Brook is ranked 15th in the country coming into the game, which is another great example of how meaningless rankings are. I see them as one of the top teams in FCS Football," Houston said on Tuesday. "They are a very complete football team, and it's going to be a really challenging game for our squad on Saturday."
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