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The CAA Today: Week Seven & Eight – More Clarity!
By Bruce Dowd, CSN The CAA Today columnist
What a week in the CAA highlighted by that classic battle between No. 1 JMU and No. 5 Richmond. We had UMass continuing on a roll with a CAA road win and saw both Delaware and New Hampshire fall at home. It might seem like a lot of turmoil but if look more closely you will start to see some clarity.
[Before we get into my coverage for the week I want to make a statement about the length of my column. Many of you have commented favorably on all the content each week while some of you feel it is too long and time consuming to read. I know my column is long every week but I have organized it so you can select the sections you want to read. Like for example if you are bored by my constant ranting on the rankings you can just skip that section. If you are not interested in how I rank the CAA teams into tiers, also just skip it. Maybe you are just interested in your team so just go straight to that section for last week’s game and the upcoming game and then you are done. The main problem for me is that this is a 12 team league so there is a lot to cover. Another problem is I just can’t stop blabbering (writing). I hope the format each week makes it easy for you to find the sections you are interested in. As always, please let me know what you think.]
NATIONAL RANKINGS UPDATE
I have tried to leave this alone each week, but I just can’t. First of all, it has really created a stir from our readers. I have gotten many emails, most agreeing with me which is very comforting. Almost every week I seem to get more and more upset with the rankings and as many of you have pointed out, it does have a bearing on the selection committee come playoff time. With that having been said, here we go again.
I don’t won’t to say I told you so, but I told you so. Exactly what I thought would happen to Richmond did happen. The No. 5 team in the nation, lost to the No. 1 team and the game was as close as a game can be as JMU won with one second left. As a result, Richmond is now No. 9, yet JMU grabbed a stronger hold on No. 1. So, the logic here, and I use that word very loosely, if that JMU gets even a bigger hold on No. 1 by just beating No. 5, and No. 5 drops four spots by barely losing to No. 1. I guess I need to give up trying to figure this out and stop trying to apply logic to the voting, because there doesn’t seem to be any.
Anyway, here is my top 10 and in parentheses the National Rankings;
1. James Madison (1)
2. Appalachian State (2)
3. Villanova (7)
4. Elon (3)
5. Richmond (9)
6. Wofford (4)
7. Cal Poly (5)
8. Massachusetts (10)
9. Southern Illinois(16)
10. Northern Iowa(6)
There are some differences here, but overall not too bad. Now let’s examine the differences more closely. Let’s talk first about the SoCon which in the National Poll has App, Elon and Wofford 2, 3 and 4 respectively. I have them 2, 4, and 6. I got no big problem with that. Some of the top CAA schools have already played each other and these three SoCon teams have not and when that happens, like it or not, some of them will drop in the rankings. While I do not think that all three of these SoCon teams are better than Villanova, Richmond and Massachusetts, until they start playing each other that is life in the world of polls, therefore no big deal here.
Let’s examine the CAA teams. The National Poll and I have the same four teams in the top ten and in the same order, but I still contend that my rankings are more accurate. The problem is the same as with the SoCon only in reverse. There have already been three games between these teams as compared to none for the SoCon top teams. If you take away those CAA games, suddenly Richmond and UMass only have one loss each and I bet they are now in the top three or four teams, so again, not a big deal.
Now let’s talk about the two major differences. Again it seems like I continue to disagree with the National Polls on Montana. While that was an impressive win last week against Eastern Washington, I still don’t think they are better than the teams I have in my top ten. It is their strength of schedule that bothers me and unfortunately, there is not much remaining to challenge them. Their only real tough tests remaining are against Northern Arizona and Montana State and they are both at home. So, I have resigned myself to the fact that Montana will probably end up a top ten team and get another first round playoff game.
The last major difference is Southern Illinois and the Missouri Valley conference. Last year this conference was very competitive on a National scale in the playoffs. For some reason it is not quite getting the same kind of respect this year. These two teams are in the same conference, they both have two losses, one each to a quality FBS team and S. Illinois has beaten N. Iowa head-to-head. Perhaps the National polls are right and N. Iowa is better, but ten spots better? I don’t think so. So, I have them both as top ten teams and based on the fact that S. Illinois beat N. Iowa I have them ahead. Seems logical to me, but there is that word again. By the way, I have Western Illinois as No. 11.
Last one to discuss and I owe this one to a reader who emailed me and questioned my logic. Actually he had a point and as a result I have reevaluated a few teams. Chad questioned my logic when I stated that I had several teams ahead of teams they beat and he asked why then was Cal Poly ahead of Montana and Weber State when Weber beat Montana and Montana beat Cal Poly? That is a very good question. You will note that I don’t have Cal Poly as high as other polls do; however, if you examine their schedule they have a win over FBS San Diego State. They also easily defeated Northwestern State on the road by a score of 52-18. Northwestern State’s only other loss came on the road at Baylor by a similar score. So, I consider Cal Poly’s schedule to be better at this point but I am keeping an eye on this one as Chad’s point is valid. His email also forced me to take a better look at Weber State and I now have them in front of Montana. Weber did win the head-to-head battle and if you examine both teams’ schedules there is no comparison. Weber has two loses but they were to FBS Hawaii and also to FBS undefeated Utah. There is nothing even close to that on Montana’s schedule. The National Poll has Weber 10 spots behind Montana.
One last insane fact about this week’s poll; After William and Mary goes on the road and beats No. 4 New Hampshire what happens? UNH drops to No. 11 and the Tribe is not even ranked. Well you might ask, maybe it is because of record and schedule? UNH is 4-1, William & Mary is 3-2 with their two losses coming to No. 7 Villanova and a 10 point loss to North Carolina State. Perhaps this is one of those cases where you could argue that UNH should still be ranked higher, but to NOT have William & Mary even ranked, give me a break! I would love to know if William & Mary were to play either Jacksonville State or Tennessee State who these voters would be betting on.
I may not always be right in my rankings or my logic, but do you know of any other voters who have the guts to expose their picks for you to scrutinize? I take my responsibility for my vote serious and as a result, I continue to encourage your responses to keep me honest. Chad and I may not still agree totally, but he had a point and forced me to relook at a few things. So please, continue to give me your feedback, it really helps.
CAA RANKINGS UPDATE
1 – James Madison (1) National No. 1
2 – Villanova (2) National No. 7
3 – Richmond (3) National No. 9
4 – Massachusetts (4) National No. 10
5 – William & Mary (NR) National (Not ranked)
6 – New Hampshire (4) National No. 11
So, we have a shake up in the Tiers this week as William and Mary has now earned the right to join the Top Tier with their impressive win on the road against New Hampshire. Earlier in the year I stated that I didn’t think we would get five teams in the playoffs again this year, and while it is still very early I am not so sure it might not happen again. Head Coach Rocky Hager of Northeastern agrees with me too. In talking this week about the CAA, Rocky had this to say; “We feel very good about being in the Colonial. It is a very competitive conference. What more would you want out of a Championship Subdivision league as to having five teams make it into the playoffs a year ago. And when you look at it right now, land sakes I would say there are five teams again that could be in the playoffs.”
The main problem that the CAA has in this regard is that it has four quality teams all in one six team division, the South. With all those games playing against each other, putting five in will be a difficult but not impossible task. It almost forces the teams in the South to win all their games against the North, like for example Richmond’s game this week against UMass and Nova’s game against UNH later in the year. But for now, congratulations to William & Mary for their jump up into the Top Tier.
Middle Tier: Delaware, Maine, Northeastern
Bottom Tier: Towson, Hofstra, Rhode Island
The above Tiers are all exactly the same as last week, other than the Tribe moving up. It is starting to look like the teams listed above will remain in their respective tiers. I haven’t seen anything recently to convince me otherwise and don’t see much on the horizon that could change my mind either.
Last week I commented on an interesting trend that has developed over the past couple years which seems to be a formation of elite teams in the CAA that the rest of the league is having trouble competing with each year. I am still researching this for a section in a future column but interestingly, Mike Barber, a reporter from the Daily News Record in Harrisonburg is doing a similar piece and had many questions for the coaches this week on that topic. His piece is more centered on facilities and how the North in general is losing that battle. This of course has a lot to do with recruiting in this day and age and may be the main cause for the trend that I am seeing. Coach Hager of Northeastern called it the “facilities arms race.” I just wanted to give you that food for thought as we will pursue this topic further in future weeks.
LAST WEEK’S GAMES
When I picked the games last week, I thought I was nuts when I realized I had picked four teams to win on the road out of the six games. Well, I was in the right church just wrong pew. I didn’t necessarily have the right ones, but the road team won five of the six games last week, so much for home field advantage.
No. 1 James Madison 38, No. 9 Richmond 31: Another CAA and FCS classic. I had the pleasure of seeing this game in person. For more in-depth coverage please see my article earlier this week; Another Classic.
I have several things I would like to add to that coverage of the game. For those of you who might have left the FCS planet and didn’t hear what happened, JMU scored 15 points in the last 59 seconds, including a 69 yard punt return with one second remaining to avoid overtime and win the game. For more detailed information about the punt return by Scotty McGee, including pics and a video, my game article is where you want to go and also don’t miss the “Key performance of the Week” section below.
However, the big question here is why, why, WHY would you ever kick it to McGee in that situation. Here is what coach London had to say about that; “It’s one of those games, it was going to boil down to who can make the most plays in the end. And, in the end, we couldn’t stop them from driving down the field and scoring. And with a few seconds left in the game, 18 seconds left in the game, [score] 31 to 31, having a chance to at least go into overtime, we kind of had an idea where they would set their punt return.……It’s one of those things where you tell your kids, you tell a young man you want to kick the ball a certain way, definitely not right to Scotty at that point, but just get the ball to the far right and kick it out of bounds, something like that, where it would hamper their return, and then hold them a couple plays and go into overtime. Unfortunately, our young man, who is devastated right now, he kicked it and kicked it right to him and help set up the return that they were looking for. Even more disappointing than that, we faced those kinds of returns before; we just had guys out of position and not in position to at least knock Scotty out of bounds.”
I hate to do this, but I have to say something here about the coaching for Richmond. If you remember my article after week one, I thought there was some questionable coaching in the red zone that cost Richmond an upset over Virginia. After listening to what coach London had to say above, I have to put some blame on the coaching again. You can’t leave any doubt in the mind of a young player as to what he is supposed to do. The “. . . get the ball to the far right . . . and out of bounds, something like that, where it could hamper their return . . .” is not good enough. It had to be clear, the message should have been; “I don’t care if you only kick it 20 yards, DO NOT let Scotty touch the ball. GET IT OUT OF BOUNDS!” That should have been the message. Then you live to play overtime. Please don’t get me wrong, I really like coach London. He is a player’s coach. The guys really like playing for him, but the coaching staff is making some rookie mistakes and in this league, that can kill you. Richmond has now put themselves into a huge hole and it is a shame. This is a team that is talented enough to win a National Championship this year and they may not even get the chance to try. With three loses and games still remaining at UMass, and against William & Mary plus Delaware, the road to the playoffs is looking very tenuous at best.
And now, back to the game which was as close as a game can be, not only on the scoreboard but also statistically. Actually, I am not sure if I ever saw a game where I thought the teams were so evenly matched as this game. The expression that you hear every once in a while that it is a shame that either team had to lose, certainly applied here. Richmond had an eight point lead with just over three minutes remaining only to see JMU drive the field and score, then get the two point conversion. With 59 seconds remaining, Richmond failed to get into field goal range and it looked like certain overtime until the McGee bomb. Now statistically, listen to this; After the first half, Richmond had one more point, one less first down, 23 more yards, the exact same number of plays, 1:50 less in time of possession. The statistics for entire game had Richmond with still just one less first down, now 26 more yards, one more play, two minutes less time of possession. Neither team turned the ball over and both teams made all their field goal attempts. They were both perfect in the red zone and also on fourth down conversions. Each team had just three penalties. JMU averaged 5.6 yards per play while Richmond averaged 5.9 yards per play. I don’t’ know how you get any more even than that, yet as a perfect example of what can happen in the league, one of these teams is probably headed to Chattanooga and the other may not even get to the playoffs. That’s a fine “how do you do” to coach London in his first year in the CAA.
This was just a great game to watch and extremely hard hitting. I was very impressed with the play of Eric Ward. He really looked good in the pocket. He hung in there and connected on several big pass plays. He is becoming one of the better quarterbacks in the league.
Here is what coach Mickey Mathews had to say about Eric and the game in general; “Their quarterback played the game of his life. He just made some great throws, stayed in the pocket, and threw the ball at the last second. Their receivers played very well. We blitzed too much. If we didn’t blitz any, we would have played a lot better. When we blitzed, they kept maximum protection and ran two man routes and that really hurt us. They really executed very well.”
Another thing that impressed me was the play of the JMU defense. With Scotty McGee and Landers and Yancy, etc. the JMU offense gets a lot of attention, but those guys can really play defense as some of these great photos below from Cathy Kushner shows.
In that last photo three potential captions come to mind depending on your perspective. If you are Richmond; “How many people does if take to tackle Vaughn?” And if you are JMU; “Look at the pursuit of our defense!” If you are the Richmond coach; “Wonder what would have happened if that was a play fake instead?”
Again, for more coverage on this game see my game article Another Classic done earlier in the week. In conclusion, this was just one great game by two super teams and it truly was a shame that either team had to lose.
William & Mary 38, No. 11 New Hampshire 34: This game confirmed a couple things that we have been discussing for the past few weeks. William & Mary is for real and UNH is probably not quite as good as their No. 4 ranking. While Archer performed well last week in relief of Phillips, it would have been real interesting to see what William & Mary could have done against Nova with Phillips at quarterback. We may just find out in the playoffs, but again I digress so back to the game at hand.
While there was a lot of offense in this game, 72 points and over 950 yards of offense, there was still some hard hitting defense as both teams were flying to the ball. That fabulous picture above proves that JMU isn’t the only team that can gang tackle. This was another great CAA contest with two very good teams battling right down to the wire.
For the second week in a row, the Tribe really struggled early and were down 21-7 at half. The second half was a completely different story as William & Mary scored 31 including a 17 yard touchdown pass from Jake Phillips to D.J. McAulay with just 22 seconds remaining in the game. That last game winning drive was for 72 yards in 11 plays and took over four minutes off the clock.
Coach McDonnell kind of summed up the second half and the game when he was asked about the fact that his defense was on the field for a full 21 minutes in that second half and if that had a bearing on why the Wildcats couldn’t stop the Tribe on the final drive; “No I think it was the same as every drive in the second half . . . we got them in third and seven, third and six, third and nine and we just couldn’t get off the field. And the same thing happened in the last drive. We got a pick, then we got a roughing the passer call. Everything that went down in that drive happened in drives before. I don’t think we were fatigued. In fact I thought that our defense flew around pretty good in that last drive. Unfortunately, they kept on making one more play in these drives and the credit goes to Jimmy and his staff and his players and what they did there. We again have got to find a way to get off the field in those situations. When we have won games we have done that. Saturday we didn’t do it. We’re 1-1 in the conference now because of that.”
One thing that has really impressed me has been the play of Phillips this year at quarterback and the play of true freshman Jonathan Grimes. This has become a very potent one-two punch for the Tribe that has given their offense balance and is causing fits for opposing defenses. Phillips was 30-40 for 310 yards and four touchdowns, with 222 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. Grimes continues to be a big weapon as he rushed for 144 yards on 23 carries, had eight receptions for 47 yards and 91 yards on returns.
Here is what Laycock had to say about his quarterback; “Jake Phillips at quarterback really stepped up after missing the previous game with a foot injury. Probably still not being a 100%, he played very, very well and really competed coming down the stretch . . . we made some plays in some tough situations and got a nice win.”
Coach Laycock continued as he discussed Grimes; “He is just an extremely consistent player. He is a very good player . . . it is hard for me to remember having a true freshman who is consistently at that level. You have some that give you some good plays here and there and show you a lot of potential and make some plays but then turn around and make some mistakes . . . he is performing at a very high level for us and very consistent level.” Coach Laycock also raved about the play of defensive end Adrian Tracey who had 14 tackles, four for losses and two sacks. That’s quite a day.
This game may have had an even bigger impact on the CAA than the JMU Richmond game. UNH may now be in some trouble, or at the very least have very little room for error. New Hampshire still has to travel to Nova in a few weeks, they still have a game remaining against UMass and they have a real tough road game this week at Northeastern. After the season is over, the Wildcats may be looking back at this game as the one that kept them out of the playoffs or perhaps cost them a home game. For William & Mary, this was a statement game. The Tribe has now served notice that the other teams in the South better pay attention. William & Mary has two quarterbacks that can play, a real weapon developing in Grimes, and a defense that is playing hard and is much better than last year.
With the emergence of Villanova and now William and Mary, the South has become a real four team battle ground and it is going to be very interesting to see how this plays out.
Hofstra 45, Bucknell 31: Here is one I guessed, or rather got right last week. Hofstra was able to grab a non-conference win on the road and even their record at 3-3. Hofstra is starting to develop some weapons on offense, and like William & Mary a very good one-two punch with quarterback Cory Christopher and the emergence of running back Brock Jackolski.
Cory had another stellar performance with 62 yards rushing and 15-22 passing for 148 yards and a touchdown. Brock had 170 yards rushing and three touchdowns on nine carries which included a 78 yard scamper.
Coach Cohen was pleased with his team’s performance and progress but also was realistic as to where they are right now. Here was his comment; “There are some things to build on, but we are still not playing as consistent or as clean as we’re capable of playing. Hopefully we can continue to improve, but if we don’t we are going to face some roadblocks here in the next few weeks.” What coach Cohen was referring to by “roadblocks” was the tough schedule ahead. They travel to Maine this week which is their fourth straight road trip. Then their last five games are against Delaware, New Hampshire, Richmond, Northeastern, and Massachusetts. So if they continue to play inconsistent in that stretch, they are not going to find many chances for victory.
When I asked him this week about playing four straight away games, he had this interesting comment about the Bucknell game that I wasn’t aware of; “Obviously, you don’t want your schedule to look like that but we were put in an interesting situation in that we have the presidential debate here Wednesday night [October 15th]. With the secret service and so on and so forth and other government agencies, we were forced to change the Bucknell game from a home game to an away game. That was beyond our control. So we just flipped when Bucknell was going to be a home game and when it was an away game. Certainly [with] the option of not playing the game or playing the game away, we certainly wanted to play the game.”
In another interesting little sidebar, coach Cohen’s brother is the defensive coordinator at Bucknell. So David goes and puts up 45 points on him. Not much brotherly love there. That should make for some interesting conversation around the family dinner table over the holidays. But, all in all, a nice out of conference win on the road for Hofstra.
Towson 37, Rhode Island 32: The Tigers were the only home team to win last week and this was another toss-up game that I guessed, excuse me, got wrong.
This was a battle of the quarterbacks and Sean Schaefer got the better of it on this Saturday. Derek Cassidy didn’t have one of his better days. Even though he ended up with 265 yards passing, he hit on less than fifty percent completions. On the other hand, Sean was 25-34 for 373 yards and four touchdowns.
The game started out about as bad as a game can for Towson. The Tigers got the ball first and after offsetting penalties forced a second opening kickoff, they went three and out. On the ensuing punt, the snap went over the punter’s head and into the end zone for a safety. Then Rhode Island’s Johnson Farrell returned the kickoff 72 yards for a touchdown. So, after just 2:24 gone, and not yet having run a play on offense, Rhode Island was now ahead 9-0. Now if you are Towson that is a really bad start. Towson did recover however as their defense played well in that first half and the offense scored on their next two possessions tying the game up at 9-9 which is how the first half ended.
Towson then went on to a 30-12 lead early in the fourth quarter only to have to survive a furious Rhode Island comeback. The Rams bid for the win died on the Towson 29 yard line with 1:07 remaining after four straight incomplete passes and Towson escaped with a win as Towson now moves to 3-4 on the season while the Rhode Island dropped to 2-5.
There was a total of 41 points scored in that wild fourth quarter and Coach Combs took the responsibility for their near collapse. Here is what he had to say; “It was my fault that we got a little conservative, because I told Jeff McDonald [Defensive Coordinator] make them work for the plays. We went into the game thinking we needed to pressure with the blitz and play a lot of man against Cassidy and we just felt that we could put some pressure on him that way. So, we did that for three quarters and then we went back and played more coverage and they burned us for 20 points in the fourth quarter and we had to stop them inside our 25 yard line to win the game on four downs.”
Coach Rizzi was asked about his teams effort in that fourth quarter and he had this reply; “The biggest part of it is that we can keep taking out of these games is that we are resilient and we are coming back and we have done it now in all three league games that we have played, against New Hampshire, against Hofstra and now against Towson. We just keep coming up short. In one aspect it is very good, we continue to battle, we continue to fight, we have a lot of kids that are buying into what are trying to accomplish around here, but on the flip side we kind of disappeared for about two and a half or three quarters in the middle of the game and that’s when Towson was able to come back and take a substantial lead . . . its is going to catch up to you when you are inconsistent in this conference. But I am very proud that we continue to battle . . . but again, we are in a foundation building stage right now with 45% of our team being new and again we are going to stay positive because I am very, very pleased about the future of the program.”
In previous years in conversations I had with coach Combs he had talked about how his depth was not as strong as other teams in the conference as they still had not issued all their scholarships. So I asked him how he felt about that now. Here was his reply; “The biggest problem now Bruce is that a lot of our young guys are our depth. I’m talking about our redshirt freshmen, our [true] freshmen and even some of our sophomores that are playing a lot. We had a really big senior class last year. We lost a lot of really good football players on defense. That is where we have been really struggling . . . You know the other thing is that we got Drew Mack back the last couple of games and he has made a real difference. He made two huge plays on Saturday. He gives us that leadership that we need to have because we only start two other seniors on our defense.”
In retrospect, I may have been a little harsh on Towson this year as it is obvious that this is a very young team, so, my apologies to coach Combs and Towson. I need to cut them a little slack as they are still a relatively new program in the FCS and the CAA and they also wound up in the toughest division in the entire country for an FCS school. With all these young players gaining experience, their time will come.
A couple of interesting milestones, if you will, happened in this game. Sean Schaefer has now passed 10,000 yards passing in his career. He is only the 20th quarterback in FCS history to do that. Also, Marcus Lee has now caught a pass in 41 straight games.
No. 10 Massachusetts 28, Northeastern 24: As expected, this was a real close game but in the end, UMass was just too much for Northeastern in this game. Both teams were successful running the ball as they each had over 200 yards rushing on the day. As is the case with most CAA games, this game was an extremely hard hitting game.
Liam Coen was solid with 20-30 for 265 yards, one interception and no touchdowns. Two stars on offense of UMass were Victor Cruz and Tony Nelson. Cruz had 10 receptions for 139 yards while Nelson had 37 carries for 175 yards and a touchdown.
For Northeastern, Alex Broomfield continues to impress as he had 27 carries for 169 yards. Anthony Orio also had a solid performance going 10-19 for 179 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. His big play of the day was an 80 yard touchdown bomb to Rob Theoudele.
Nate Thellan had another outstanding day on defense as he is becoming one of the best defensive backs in the league. He had seven tackles, a pass breakup and grabbed his fifth interception of the year.
Coach Hager had this to say about the game and more specifically about his team; “The one thing that I will say has been a very consistent phrase that we can use about our football team, and this has been more than this year, but in particular this year; we play very physical football, we play very hard nosed, we give everything we’ve got and it is not a matter or not if there is the effort. We just had some things that didn’t go quite right for us . . . one of the things we felt pretty good about going into the contest was that we were going to be able to play with our eyes on offense and see the different pressures and blitzes and all the different twists and things that UMass would throw at you. I need to praise our offensive line . . . we were in a 15 round bout with the defending champion and we gave it everything we got. They came up with a couple of plays in the fourth quarter that we were not able to . . . our program has come a long way and we are pleased with that but by George, we got to figure some things out that will help us make some plays in those crunch time situations.”
This was a back and forth game but the real difference was the fourth quarter when Massachusetts’s defense really stepped up and shut out Northeastern. Coach Brown was asked about all the close games they have played this year and how they seem to find ways to survive and win in the end and if that kind of feeds itself from week to week. Here was his reply; “It does feed itself . . . when you have been in those situations and you have positive experiences, you know how to keep your head and stay focused and just keep playing the game and then just look up at the end and see where you’re at . . . we gave Northeastern the ball three times in the last three series in the fourth quarter and we were able to find a way to get off the field . . . we got off the field with a pass breakup a fumble recovery and then another fumble recovery . . . the guys know how to battle.”
Maine 27, Delaware 10: I thought Delaware would be able to handle Maine in Newark, but this season is getting real ugly for Delaware now. We have talked about the obvious problem here all year but it is the same thing each week. Delaware had five turnovers which included three more interceptions from Robby Schoenhoft and a fumble.
I have been avoiding this topic, but it is time to start talking about the problems at Delaware and what is happening to this team. Remember now, this is a team that was in the National Title game last year. This is a monumental slide in just one year.
Delaware’s problems are all on the offensive side of the ball and it seems like it might even be getting worse instead of better. Maine held Delaware to just 14 net yards rushing for the game, which is the second lowest rushing output by Delaware at home in the entire 57 year history of Delaware Stadium. Add to this a young offensive line and a quarterback who keeps throwing the ball to the other team and you got a recipe for disaster. Now, as if things couldn’t get any worse, the Hens lost two defensive starters this week, each suspended for a game after an altercation with police.
This is a program that is having some serious problems right now and I don’t see any solutions for them this year either. Schoenhoft is a complete bust and Keeler has no other options. I asked the obvious question this week, which is one that the Hen’s fans have been wondering for weeks now, which is when to do you start to think about going to your freshman quarterback, Lou Ritacco. Here was his reply; “Lou is not going to be an option this week. He got poked in the eye. He is probably going to miss Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s practice. So, even if we thought of going in that direction that is not going to be an option. After a ballgame where we had five turnovers and he threw three interceptions, obviously that is the first thing you think about is maybe we need a change to give a breath of fresh air. What I will tell you is this, Robby is improving dramatically. He has played fairly well at times in that ballgame. He threw for 355 yards, or whatever it was, and over 50 percent.” Coach Keeler went on to explain how he didn’t feel all three interceptions were Robby’s fault, perhaps only one of them; “Out of three of those interceptions, maybe one of them partially was his fault as he made a bad read. These were great plays by Maine in making these interceptions, not like we had previously when he made mistakes in protections and coverage readings or had his eyes on the receiver too long. Because of that, I think we are moving forward. But we don’t have an option right now because I don’t know if Lou is going to be back in Wednesday or Thursday.”
There are many in Newark who think that Keeler is just being stubborn with his selection at quarterback and if you read what he said above, you might agree with them as he tried to make excuses for his quarterback. But the fact is that Robby had four turnovers, one was an interception at the goal line and another was a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. Two game changing plays. If this was just one bad game, then fine, but it is every game. However, the truth is that Keeler sees these things but the problem is he has no real alternative. Even if Lou wasn’t hurt my sources tell me he is not ready and he is no better than Schoenhoft. All Keeler has then is Robby and he has to try to keep the kid’s confidence up in order to even try and compete.
The real heart of the issue is not this year and not Schoenhoft personally, but a trend that Delaware has developed ever since Keeler arrived at Delaware, the “transfer quarterback roulette wheel”. It is hard to understand how other teams in the league can recruit young quarterbacks but Delaware can’t. Look at William and Mary for example; last week Jake Phillips goes down and they bring in R.J. Archer who plays super in relief. Last week Maine’s qb Farkes goes down and Brusko comes in and does a good job filling in. Then there is Villanova, who had high hopes for their stud quarterback Antwon Young and when he faltered, in steps Whitney and this team looks like it is headed to the playoffs. I could go on and on with the other teams, but you get the point.
This “transfer quarterback roulette wheel” is the real problem here. This trend can be good at times, like for example the second year for Andy Hall when they won the National Championship and then the second year for Flacco when they went to the Championship game. But when you live by the sword you die by the sword. There are several problems with this trend. First of all, it usually takes two years for the transfer to get with the program and be effective even if he has the talent. Hall and Flacco are perfect examples. Then there is the problem that you are never really sure what you are getting like with Riccio for example. While he was adequate for Delaware he wasn’t a Hall or Flacco. Now we have the Schoenhoft fiasco. Another problem is that you have to try and find one every year that wants to transfer. The final issue is the one that concerns me the most and that is the recruiting angle. We will be talking about recruiting in the CAA more in the upcoming weeks, but for now let’s just imagine that you are a good young high school quarterback. Would you take a chance on Delaware and risk being a back-up to whatever transfer they bring in that year? I really think that Delaware has made their recruiting job much more difficult with this whole transfer quarterback situation. In my opinion, they need to stop this and if it isn’t already too late, do it the old fashion way, by recruiting. Unfortunately for Blue Hen fans, this will be a process and it may be a few years before they get back to being competitive for a National Title, unless of course they decide to spin that roulette wheel again. If I remember right, the Vegas odds on roulette is 35-1.
My apologies to the Maine fans for this digression into Delaware’s woes but it was overdue. Now back to some more game information.
Every once in awhile, a player comes along who is a real difference maker. A player that other teams have to scheme around each week. You always get to hear about the offensive players who fit this bill, but often a defensive player can be this type of athlete too and he usually goes somewhat unnoticed to the average fan. Maine’s outstanding defensive end, Jovan Belcher is one of those players. I asked Keeler about him this week and how you game plan for a guy like that. Here was his response; “I think Maine did a great job of putting him in position to be successful. He gets so many tackles in the run game, and in their zone blitz package suddenly he falls back he is almost like in a middle linebacker, and then they bring him off the edge. We actually developed some different pass protections to try to change things up on him. We did some pulling of the guard and a little play fake and try to get a guard on him a couple times when he wasn’t expecting it just to give him a different look then just having a tackle set on him because he is just so quick. I was very impressed with his play, and there is a reason why he was the Pre-season Conference Player of the Year.”
In this game, all Belcher did was have seven tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. All of this was while he was getting the full attention of the Delaware offense and special game planning.
This was a great win for Maine. On the road, at Delaware in front of 21,000 plus, your starting quarterback goes out and you pull off the win with 17 unanswered fourth quarter points.
The CAA Today “KEY PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK”
There were many performances this week that could have deserved this award but I am going to give it to Scotty McGee of James Madison. Obviously, one of the main reasons was what I am now referring to as “The Return”, a 69 yard punt return for a touchdown with one second left to win the game. However, it is more than just one play. Scotty is one of those rare players, a weapon if you will, who can affect a game without even touching the ball. As you could see from my article of the game itself, Richmond spent most of the day trying to keep the ball away from Scotty and as a result had to constantly give up field position, which led to several short field scores for JMU. And then of course, Richmond makes one mistake and Scotty makes them pay.
It is like having this big powerful right hook that everyone is afraid off. While they are busy trying to protect against that, you just keep hitting them with the jab. Finally they let their guard down and then “boom”, Knockout! Or in this case, Touchdown!
There are two plays that standout in my mind as a candidate for possible “play of the year”, assuming there is any such thing. “The Return” described above is certainly the first one, but in second place is the second half opening kickoff return against App State for a touchdown, also by Scotty. Two high impact plays in what just may be a very magical season for JMU. What a very special player this kid is.
If you haven’t already read it, please see my article earlier this week on the game itself and read the interview from Scotty. It was heartwarming to hear what such a humble and thankful young man had to say. Congratulations Scotty and just keep on believing.
THIS WEEK’S GAMES
We have two teams with a bye and five games this week, all CAA match-ups. Last week there were five road victories. We might not see that many, but there will be some. There may even be a few upsets in the works but the trick is trying to figure out which ones. While I would have loved to see a few of these games in person, I have decided to do my own private tailgate, get some ribs and some brews, kick back and first watch UNH at Northeastern followed by this week’s game of the week, Richmond at UMass. If you don’t get the chance to see any of these five games in person, then you might want to do the same thing as they should be two very exciting games with huge implications on the final CAA standings this year. I really have no idea who is going to win in either of these games, but I’ll give it my best try.
No. 9 Richmond at No. 10 Massachusetts 3:30 pm (UMass wins in overtime): I wanted to pick Richmond here. I actually think they are the better team, but the cards are just not lining up right for them this year. Here are my reasons for picking UMass in this game
The main reason is that it is at UMass. That is a huge advantage as this is a long travel trip for Richmond. UMass is just finding ways to win at the end of games and Richmond is finding ways to lose. I don’t see that trend ending when the game is at UMass.
Another reason is the emotional part of it. I sense that UMass is starting to smell the playoffs and is on a little bit of a roll now. On the other hand, Richmond will have a tough time rebounding from the very difficult last second loss to JMU at home.
Now, let’s talk about the flip side and you will see why I almost picked Richmond here. As I stated above, I actually think they have the better team. Let’s assume that JMU is the best team in the country for a minute. Richmond went toe-to-toe with them last week and I was left with the feeling that those two teams were about even. JMU beat UMass pretty good earlier in the year, but that was at JMU, last week it was at Richmond and this one is at Massachusetts.
On a possible match-up issue, last week coach Matthews felt they made a mistake by blitzing too much and Richmond and Ward handled it and burned JMU on the big play. UMass is a blitzing team and as a result can leave themselves open to the big play which is something that Richmond could exploit. So, if Richmond can get ahead by a couple of scores and not make it come down to the last few minutes of play, they have a shot. This game will be a great one to watch.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [Does not apply, toss up game]
TV Coverage: CN8, CSS
No. 11 New Hampshire at Northeastern Noon (Northeastern gets one): Again, like the game above, this is a very difficult game to figure. I love how New Hampshire plays football and have a great deal of respect for their coaches but this is a very good 2-4 Northeastern team and they are always tough at home. Remember now, Northeastern’s losses have come to a very good FBS Ball State team, in overtime at Georgia Southern, at Syracuse and last week to UMass. That is some pretty heady company. They let one get away last week against UMass and I just think they will be ready for this one.
A key match-up here is UNH’s defense against Northeastern’s offense. The Wildcats will score on Northeastern but the question is can their defense shut down a very balanced attack from Northeastern and handle all those trick plays, or as coach Combs refers to it, “junk in the trunk”. If I am right, and Northeastern wins this one, it could throw the North right into the lap of UMass.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [ - - - - - - - - 9 - ]
TV Coverage: CSN-MA, CSN-NE
No. 7 Villanova at Rhode Island Noon (Rhody not ready yet): Everyone is concerned about this being a trap game with Nova having a bye week last week and perhaps looking past this one to next week’s showdown game against JMU. There may be some truth to that, but I think Villanova is a team on a mission and Talley will have addressed those concerns.
But mostly, it won’t matter because I believe the talent level between these two teams is just that great. Rhode Island is not ready yet to handle a team like Villanova.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [ - 2 - - - - - - - - ]
TV Coverage: None
William & Mary at Delaware Noon (William & Mary handles the Hens): Sorry Hen fans, but it is over for Delaware. There is just too much negative vibes right now surrounding the Blue Hens, with the ongoing disaster of an offense and the off field distraction this week, things are close to an all-time low in Newark.
The only reason I didn’t set the Upset Meter lower is because sometimes, a team can rally around this kind of controversy and play above their heads and if the crowd gets them going, they might be able to feed off that. But the problem is, they still have to find a way to score and I can’t see them getting too many points with that offense. While defense hasn’t been William & Mary’s strong suit the last couple of years, this year’s squad is much better and getting better every week. Grimes is a real legitimate weapon and Phillips is one of the better quarterbacks in the league. I am afraid this game could actually be a blow out. I wish it was on TV.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [ - - 3 - - - - - - - ] (assumes the Tribe is the favorite)
TV Coverage: None
Hofstra at Maine 3:00 pm (Maine wins at home): Hofstra has looked good at times this year and they have found some weapons on offense but their three wins this year have been against Rhode Island, Stony Brook, and Bucknell. Maine is better than those three teams and they are at home. This is also the fourth straight road game for Hofstra and Maine is one of the toughest road trips in the league.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [ - - - 4 - - - - - - ] (assumes Maine is the favorite)
TV Coverage: WABI
Teams with a Bye Week: JMU and Towson have a bye week this week and it comes at a great time for both teams.
For Towson, they are about to enter a very tough stretch in their schedule with games against UNH (away), William & Mary (home), Delaware (away), Villanova (away) and JMU (home). So it is a good time to regroup. Coach Combs says he does thing differently than other coaches and likes to give his team the week off, thereby making them fresher for the stretch run. Makes sense to me.
For James Madison it is a totally different story. With the loss of captain and starting linebacker D.J. Brandon for the season, the Dukes now have some serious problems trying to field the linebacker position. To make matters worse, that was a position that JMU was thin at to start the year and after Brandon went down, his replacement, Colin Fitz-Maurice went down 15 plays later with a neck injury.
Here they are, just past midseason, No. 1 in the country, playing great and now they have to find people who can play linebacker. So this bye week couldn’t have come at a better time. They need to find the answer fast though as they play at Villanova next week which is arguably their toughest remaining game of the regular season and that intricate offense of Nova could make mince meat out of inexperienced linebackers.
An interesting fact surfaced this week when Mickey mentioned that the only reason they have a bye week is because they did have a home game scheduled against Liberty, but it was fall break for JMU. The University didn’t want to have a home game on fall break, so the game was cancelled. What a twist of fate as Liberty is now undefeated at 6-0 and ranked No. 14. That might have been an interesting match-up especially with the problems at linebacker. So, while there is nothing lucky about these injuries, JMU does at least catch a little break with a perfect time for a bye week created by a quirk in the schedule.
THE CAA TODAY SIGNING OFF
That’s all for now, enjoy this week’s games. Hope you enjoyed the column and don’t forget to email me your thoughts and comments; CAA-Today@verizon.net.
Please recognize the effort by the following people who have supplied the photos for your viewing pleasure in this article.
Delaware Photos; Courtesy of Mark Campbell
Northeastern photos; Courtesy of Jim Pierce
Rhode Island photos; Courtesy of Tom Symonds, Rhode Island
William & Mary photos; Courtesy of Pete Clawson, William & Mary
James Madison Richmond photos; Courtesy of Cathy Kushner
(and a few by me and my grandson Austin)