Every football schedule from Harrisonburg to Williamsburg and back says the same thing. This Saturday, at 3:30 p.m., James Madison will host conference rival William & Mary in both teams’ CAA opener.
But if this Saturday's game is anything like the first three the Dukes have played this season, it might be wise to expect the unexpected.
JMU, the consensus No. 2 team in FCS Football, has had an awfully unorthodox beginning to its season. It started off with tough news, as the team announced one hour before a miserably humid game in Raleigh that several key defensive players would not play for various reasons. Those players included All-American Corner Rashad Robinson, who will miss the 2018 season after suffering an injury in the final scrimmage of summer camp.
JMU lost to NC State, 24-13; Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley had more than 300 yards passing and two touchdowns.
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The following week, Madison was eager to get back on the field and avenge its first season-opening loss since 2014, but an intra-state game at Norfolk State was delayed for hours thanks to a lingering thunderstorm. The game was eventually called in JMU’s favor, despite the fact that the Dukes and Spartans had played only the first quarter.
Hurricane Florence came next. Like most Division I programs in Virginia and the Carolinas, JMU took a proactive approach, moving its Sept. 15 game with NEC opponent Robert Morris in order to prevent potential interference from the looming disaster. The result was the first Thursday night game in the history of JMU Football.
These first three weeks have been a wild ride for everyone around the JMU program — particularly the players themselves.
“Ever since I’ve been playing football, even back through high school, I’ve never had a start to the season like this,” said Ron'Dell Carter, a junior standout at defensive end. “The defense played 15 snaps [at Norfolk State]. We practiced Sunday, we got a day off Monday, then we’re getting ready to practice on Tuesday, and we get the text that we’re playing on Thursday. So now we’ve got a day and a half to practice.”
Other players echoed Carter's sentiments.
"Obviously we didn’t get as many looks in practice as we usually would, so we didn’t have as much time to prepare for last week's game," said junior wide receiver Riley Stapleton. "If we had known we were playing on Thursday, we probably would have practiced on Monday. But we found out on Tuesday, so it was a quick work week."
Like a lot of other coaches, JMU’s Mike Houston preaches a philosophy of being ready to play any time, anywhere, regardless of injuries, distractions or inconveniences. That philosophy has really been put to the test this September, as Madison has yet to play a game that hasn’t veered wildly off script for one reason or another.
“We had some concerns about a shortened week of prep, concerns about a midweek game, distractions from a hurricane, distractions from class,” Houston said. “I thought all of our guys handled it very well.”
Houston even found some levity in the chaos.
“I don’t know how the surrounding neighborhood feels about a Thursday night home game,” he said Tuesday, referencing the high crowd noise at Bridgeforth Stadium. “But I think there was a lot of excitement. I thought the student body really came out.”
Sporting a wry grin, he added: “I don’t know what the class attendance was like on Friday for students, though, so that might be a negative effect.”
It’s tough to argue that Madison hasn’t been victimized by circumstance, but it is fair to wonder what the real cost of all these scheduling oddities are. After all, it would have likely taken a galactic cataclysm for either Norfolk State or Robert Morris to upset JMU. But there still may be a cost attached to September's logistical quirks, starting this week — the beginning of conference play. It would be impossible to predict exactly how an off-kilter start to the season could affect in-season practice, coaching and player development, but it’s not crazy to imagine that the inconvenience has some sort of attached cost, somewhere down the ledger.
That’s doubly true in a monstrously deep conference like the CAA, which has already seen it’s preseason No. 2 (New Hampshire), No. 3 (Delaware) and No. 5 (Villanova) all lose conference-opening contests at the hands of teams picked to finish in the bottom half of the league.
All that brings us full-circle, back to JMU (selected No. 1 in the preseason) and its pending game with William & Mary (selected No. 11 in the preseason). In a month full of plenty of unfamiliarity, both local and regional, the Dukes have the chance to get back on schedule against perhaps their most familiar foe.
Nothing will come easy, though.
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William & Mary was the first in-state Division I team to ever play JMU in Harrisonburg. It was also, believe it or not, the last CAA team to beat JMU. That happened back in 2015, in the aftermath of Madison’s College GameDay loss to Richmond. Former quarterback Bryan Schor acquitted himself well in his first start as a Duke, but the Tribe edged out JMU, 44-41, and eventually claimed a share of the conference title.
Since then, Coach Houston has supercharged the JMU Football program, but games with William & Mary haven't exactly been one-sided. The Tribe finished last in the CAA in 2017, but still limited JMU's supersonic offense to only 19 points in the first half of last season’s game; the year before that, in the midst of the Dukes’ national ascension, Kendell Anderson rushed for 149 yards, and William & Mary played JMU within one score in Harrisonburg.
As if Saturday's game needed any more subtext, it’ll also be William & Mary coach Jimmye Laycock’s final visit to Harrisonburg, pending an unforeseen playoff rematch. Laycock announced in August that he will retire at the end of this season, his 39th and final year in Williamsburg.
“He’s someone I have a tremendous amount of respect for,” Houston said earlier this week. “The longevity, the fact that he’s performed at such a high level for William & Mary, I don’t know that you’ll see a coach do what he’s done, maybe ever again.”
So in a way, it’s fitting that JMU re-centers itself after a wild first month with one last contest against Laycock's William & Mary squad. After a strange opening sequence, Madison will attempt to stave off another unexpected event — a loss in CAA play — on its way back toward a third national championship appearance.
“They’re a bully offense, and they’ll run the ball right down your face,” Carter said of William & Mary. "We gotta be ready to man up and get physical. It’s time to lock it down.”
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