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James Madison struggles toward finish line

James Madison Dukes head coach Mike Houston on the field in the third quarter against the North Dakota State Bison at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 8, 2018. Tim Heitman / USA TODAY Sports

FARGO — When James Madison plays at home, the press box at Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg, Va., has a couple of televisions tuned to North Dakota State football games. The Dukes, it is clear by being on campus, are keeping a close eye on the Bison. Such is life among the elite programs in Division I FCS.

But is James Madison playing like an elite team in the final weeks of the 2018 season, two years after it won a national championship and a season after finishing runner-up to NDSU?

The results say no. Since early October, James Madison is 2-2 with a loss to highly-ranked Elon and a baffling defeat last week at struggling New Hampshire, which entered the game 2-6.

The Dukes, who were ranked second behind NDSU in the FCS playoff committee rankings released last week, dropped to 4-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association and 6-3 overall. They are facing the prospect of not being seeded in the top eight of the postseason field. That means JMU would play an opening round game Thanksgiving weekend.

"We need to play the way this program is built," Dukes head coach Mike Houston said on the CAA conference call this week.

That means strong defense, tight special teams and efficient offense built around a running game. The Dukes can check the first two boxes. But the third? Not so much.

James Madison's offense is struggling, hampered by an offensive line that can't generate a running game or protect the quarterback. Mix in mediocre quarterback play and turnovers and you have a recipe that leads to a headline on a FCS-focused web site that reads: "Is JMU an elite team in 2018? It depends on who you ask."

JMU's debacle in Durham, N.H., last Saturday was the Dukes' worst performance of the Houston era, which began in 2016. The Dukes turned over the ball six times, including two interceptions from two quarterbacks that the Wildcats returned for touchdowns. They mustered only 64 rushing yards, although the Dukes were playing from behind the entire game. They allowed five sacks.

Houston pulled starting quarterback Ben DiNucci after he threw an ill-advised pass across his body that was picked off and returned 44 yards for a touchdown by New Hampshire's Rick Ellison. DiNucci was replaced by junior Cole Johnson, who Houston planned to redshirt this season. Johnson was the victim of a sideline pass that was intercepted and returned 75 yards for a TD by Evan Horn.

"Ben's interception was just a poor decision. Across the middle, you can't make that throw," Houston said. "Cole's pick-six was the same thing. It's just a throw you can't make. You just have to be smart where you throw the football."

When asked by a Harrisonburg reporter who was going to start at quarterback this weekend in a home game against Rhode Island, Houston was evasive.

"We'll play play the quarterback that gives us the best chance to win Saturday," he said.

When pressed, Houston was sharp.

"I answered the question. Thanks," he said.

DiNucci also fumbled against New Hampshire and has, simply, turned over the ball too much. He's not been helped by an offensive line that has struggled since early in the season and a running game that's become anemic in the grind of the CAA schedule. Running back Marcus Marshall missed the New Hampshire game with an injury.

The Dukes ran for 103 yards on 40 attempts in a 27-24 loss to Elon, 131 yards on 38 attempts in a 37-0 victory over Villanova and 103 yards on 41 attempts in a 13-10 win over Stony Brook.

JMU is averaging only 2.6 yards per carry in its last four games (401 rushing yards on 156 attempts). They rank 60th in FCS in rushing offense.

The Dukes have a chance to likely clinch a playoff spot Saturday against against Rhode Island (3-3 CAA, 5-4 overall) in a Senior Day game at Bridgeforth. Delaware, Maine and Elon all have only one conference loss in the muddled CAA, one fewer than JMU. The loss to New Hampshire might be costly in the playoff picture, even if the Dukes win their last two regular season games.

Houston sounds like his team has more pressing issues than postseason positioning.

"I want to see them play the way we expect them to play," Houston said.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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