UNH football notebook: Trip to JMU presents familiar challenge

Monitor staff
Saturday, October 28, 2017

The trip to James Madison this weekend will be a familiar one for the University of New Hampshire football team. The Wildcats traveled to Harrisonburg, Va., less than a year ago to take on the Dukes in the 2016 FCS playoffs. JMU Coach Mike Houston expects the game to have a similar feel when the No. 17/16 ’Cats (5-2) face the No. 1/1 Dukes (7-0) this Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

“I told our kids yesterday this is a playoff team that you’re playing Saturday,” Houston said during Monday’s weekly Colonial Athletic Association teleconference. “(UNH) is the kind of team that you’re going to see that’s going to compete at the national level, and so we’re going to have to be ready to play at that level on Saturday.”

James Madison dominated that 2016 playoff game, rolling to a 55-22 win. The Dukes also beat New Hampshire during the 2016 regular season, claiming a 42-39 win after holding off a late rally from UNH. That was the closest game all year for JMU, which won the FCS national title and is currently riding a 19-game winning streak, the longest active streak in Division I.

“They are playing very similar to how they played last year in a lot of ways,” New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell said of the Dukes. “The thing that impresses me about JMU is they continue to play downhill on everybody and they are playing an attacking style of offense and an attacking style of defense.”

The biggest similarity for JMU is at quarterback, where Brian Schor is back and as good as ever. Schor was the CAA Offensive Player of the Year last season after he went 217-for-297 (73.1 percent) for 3,002 yards, 29 touchdowns and six interceptions. This season he ranks seventh in the FCS in completion percentage (67.4, 118-for-175), 14th in passing efficiency (158.0) and 19th in passing touchdowns (15).

“The kid is the best offensive football player in the league from what I can see,” McDonnell said of Schor.

New Hampshire quarterback Trevor Knight, like the rest of the Wildcats, struggled on his trip to JMU last year, going 8-for-21 for 69 yards before being pulled from the game. But Knight has made major strides this season and he currently ranks 12th in the FCS in passing touchdowns (18), 14th in passing yards per game (272.1) and total offense (296 yards per game) and 15th in completions per game (22). And he definitely has Houston’s attention.

“He’s a guy that’s really, really dangerous with his feet, but he throws the ball very, very well, and he throws the ball very accurately on the run. He is the most dangerous kind of quarterback,” Houston said. “You want to get pressure on him, but you don’t want him to get out of the pocket because if he gets out of the pocket he’s going to extend the play, and if the play gets extended all of a sudden stuff starts to break down. ... You really have a struggle trying to defend a quarterback like that, and I think he’s playing at an extremely high level this year.”

While there’s plenty of familiarity between these two teams, both coaches said they will focus more on what the other team has been doing this year as opposed to what they did last year against each other.

“You know a lot of the guys, but it’s getting to know what they’re doing this year,” Houston said. “I do think you put a little bit into how each defended or attacked each other last year, so you do glance at those games especially since you played each other twice, but the big thing is trying to see what new pieces they have and how they’re going to attack you this year.”

Running revival

Houston will have pair of new pieces to look at after UNH’s 40-17 win last week against Towson – running backs DeUnte Chatman and Brandon Gallagher. With the position hit hard by injury, Chatman, a redshirt freshman, got the start and the bulk of the carries and finished with 187 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, all career-highs, and earned CAA Rookie of the Week honors.

“First of all, (Chatman) is a very fast kid. He’s a smooth, smooth running back,” McDonnell said. “He’s a lot like Evan Gray (UNH’s primary running back before he was injured earlier this month) in a lot of ways, might be just a tad faster than him. (Chatman) was able to break tackles and bounce off tackles (against Towson) and do a nice job of getting some extra yardage on runs. The first touchdown run he banged off the linebacker and ran over the safety and got one in there.”

The bigger surprise is Gallagher, a little-used wide receiver who just moved to running back last week and finished with 104 yards on 12 carries.

“Both those guys had a great week of practice and did some really good things. ... A lot of credit goes to the offensive line. They did a good job. Those five guys finally put one together for us,” McDonnell said.

Injury update

McDonnell said on Wednesday that Gray and running back Donald Goodrich will both play on Saturday against JMU. Safety Pop Lacey, who is third on the team in tackles, will most likely miss a second straight game with a bone bruise in his left leg. And defensive end Josh Kania is out for the season with a shoulder injury.

And a numbers thing

JMU ranks first in the CAA in both scoring offense (40.7 points per game) and scoring defense (11.4 ppg allowed). UNH is third in scoring offense (29.9 ppg) and eighth in scoring defense (22.0 ppg allowed). The Dukes are also first in rushing offense (239.1 ypg) with Trai Sharp (89 carries, 462 yards) and Marcus Marshall (76 carries, 417 yards) leading the way there. New Hampshire is eighth in rushing defense (135.7 ypg allowed).

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341, tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)