It doesn't take the gridiron equivalent of a rocket scientist to point out that if you control the line of scrimmage, you're going to win. And the best programs in the FCS tend to do exactly that. In fact, some of the elite programs — the ones that routinely show up in the quarterfinals and beyond — can even push around an FBS team up front. If you really think about that, it shouldn't happen — but in rare instances, it does.
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James Madison (5-1) is one of those programs. The Dukes are 42-7 with two trips to the national title game since the beginning of 2016, with three of those seven losses being to Power Five conference schools, and one coming to NDSU in the 2017 season's national championship game. One of the reasons for that success the past 3.5 seasons is line play, which former head coach Mike Houston openly admitted was built and designed to try to compete with umpteen-time champion NDSU. Well, even with a coaching handoff from Houston to another accomplished head coach, Curt Cignetti, nothing has changed in that regard.
The Dukes' purple-hued jerseys reflect a bruising nature of play. Players like uber-active defensive lineman Ron'Dell Carter and the Dukes' stoic pillar leader in the middle on the offensive line, Mac Patrick — they are examples of why this method works at JMU and why this is a national championship contender. This week, the Dukes welcome another national championship contender in 6-0 Villanova — another program built to win this way. Defensively through six games, the Dukes allow only 2.3 yard per carry while averaging 5.3 per carry themselves — including a net rushing yardage total against P5 West Virginia of 172 yards to 34.
FCS COACHES CORNER: Villanova's Mark Ferrante Talks To HERO Sports
When you more than quintuple the rushing total of a Power Five Conference team, that should raise some eyebrows. And if JMU had solved the turnover bug in that one, it would have emerged from Morgantown with a victory in dominant style instead of a seven-point loss. And it would have been the first FCS/I-AA loss for West Virginia in its school history.
"When you look at the game of football, I think if you ask any coach what's the biggest thing you have to do, I think they're going to tell you you need a dominant line," Carter told HERO Sports this week. "He is going to tell you to stop the run and also run the ball well (on offense). If you stop the run, you make that team one-dimensional and then we can sit back on pass-prevent defense … and then we have fun."
When Carter is talking "fun," he's talking about sacks and INTs, which are like "dessert" for a diehard D-lineman. They dream of it, they salivate over the idea of it.
FCS COACHES CORNER: JMU's Curt Cignetti
It's true that good defensive linemen and good offensive linemen do not grow on trees, even though it may seem sometimes like they're as tall as trees and are as tough as oak. Trust the scathingly honest NFL Draft to be a great example of it — as defensive linemen comprised 12 of the 32 first-round selections in 2019, and offensive linemen comprised another six first-round choices. Conversely, only one running back was taken, two wide receivers and three quarterbacks. A quarterback is the most important lone position in football, and nobody questions that, but apparently it's harder to find a good defensive end or defensive tackle or offensive tackle than it is to find a quarterback. The NFL Draft is again, brutally honest … the NFL Draft speak-ith.
In other words, linemen may seemingly live in obscurity — media-wise — but when it comes to winning ballgames and banking that coin during the NFL Draft? They are quite valuable.
Not that JMU's Patrick is going to brag about any of this, it's not his nature. He keeps it close to the vest any pride he may have in his "game," but doesn't hesitate to brag on the collective unit that is doing the pushing to his right and left. Patrick's the center, and his brothers Jahee Jackson (RG), Liam Fornadel (RT), Truvell Wilson (LG) and either Raymond Gillespie or Zaire Bethea at left tackle (they alternate) have led a rushing attack that has outrushed opponents 236 to 90 yards per game. Hell, Patrick even deflected some of the credit back to his own D-line for challenging the unit he leads.
"It's a challenge every single day in practice, especially in camp," Patrick told HERO Sports. "We don't bang on each other too much in season (because of game prep), but every day in practice they make me better because of just the high level of play we try to play at. On the field, it's always a battle because of our offensive and defensive lines. We want to win every one of those battles. But after practice? We're all friends, all buddies and we might talk about 'we got one of them' on one play … but competition makes you better. And having them there every single day to practice against helps to sharpen our skills."
The defense is the mirror image. We're six games into the regular season and JMU has 49 negative yardage plays on defense, let by Carter (7.0) and John Daka (7.5), while Mike Greene has dived in with another 6.5 of them, with Adeeb Atariwa registering 5. But what's interesting is how the wealth is shared, something that happened even during Houston's stint. Nobody in this defensive unit, over the past few years, racked up 190 tackles or 27 TFLs. It was more of a collective effort, and the depth paid off. That's a magic formula, not just up front but at any position.
Depth is a special word at the FCS level. If you have it, wow. If you don't … it could come back to bite you, but it's also an FCS norm: Injuries really bite you here. Just ask Villanova, a team that shut down an FBS squad last year in Temple at Lincoln Financial Field then got banged up a few weeks later and went 5-6.
Yeah, it happens.
Nobody questions the first line of depth in FCS football, but man, that second group could be young, stocked with 18 or 19-year-olds … they may not be quite ready. This level doesn't have the luxury of Alabama with three-deep lines of monsters ready to go … especially up front. But a couple of FCS programs produce that. JMU is one of them.
"You have to be tough," Carter said. "Mainly I'm being biased when I say that, but you have to have a different kind of mentality (to dominate on the line). Every play you're getting some kind of physical contact. But every single play for like a defensive tackle or a defensive end, you're going against a guy who might be 330 pounds. You have to have a different type of mentality in the trenches … We just have to play together, we have to have chemistry. You have to have a determination that nobody can stop you. Whether it's West Virginia, Chattanooga, Stony Brook, I know personally that we think they're not going to run on us. I love sacking the QB, but when a team can't run on us, that's what really makes me happy. That just makes my day."
FCS Nation, we have a sold-out crowd showing up this weekend for a massive matchup between two teams that do things … well … the diehard way.
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