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The CAA Today: The King is dead. Long live the King!

floated rightBruce Dowd, CSN columnist

According to Wikipedia the expression “The King is dead. Long live the King!” is a traditional proclamation made following the accession of a new monarch in various countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada and others. It applies here as Appalachian State has certainly been the “King” of FCS football for over three years now. We still don’t know the successor to the throne but thanks to Richmond and their “Stonewall Defense", we at least know there will be a new King crowned on December 19th.

...

While having the King dethroned was a surprise to many, the though battle between James Madison and Villanova, and Northern Iowa and New Hampshire was exactly what everyone expected.

LAST WEEK’S GAMES

CSN had Kent Schmidt at the Northern Iowa v New Hampshire game and also had Myron Hosea at the Richmond v Appalachian State game so there is no need to repeat the blow-by-blow descriptions of those games here. However, because I watched all the playoff games on TV and because they do involve the CAA and mostly because I can’t keep my big mouth shut, I will add my two cents worth on what I saw watching those games.

In general, summing up the three CAA games played last week, several things were obvious to me and not all of them expected. First of all, while the Northern Iowa New Hampshire game was close on the scoreboard, I was really surprised by how much better the Panthers looked especially at the line of scrimmage. I was also surprised by how much better Richmond looked than the three-time defending National Champions, Appalachian State. What didn’t surprise me last week was how close in ability the James Madison and Villanova teams were.

I have been saying all year that I thought JMU, Nova, and Richmond were three of the top four or five teams in the country and last week’s performances did nothing to change my mind on that and may have even proved the point. However, and that is a big HOWEVER, I can’t tell you how great it is to actually see some of these other teams play and especially when they are matched up against our CAA teams. I have gained a new found respect for both Northern Iowa and Montana. These teams deserve to be where they are and this week’s matchups will tell us even more.

No. 4 Northern Iowa 36, New Hampshire 34: In my opinion, and this is hard to say from the ultimate “CAA Homer,” even though the score was close, it really looked like Northern Iowa was clearly the better team at least they were on this day.

The play that really kept this game closer then it might have been was the last play of the half. With Northern Iowa leading 26-20 and knocking on the goal line for another score, Pat Grace’s pass was picked off by John Clements and returned 100 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the first half giving New Hampshire a 27-26 lead instead of being down by 13 points. That was truly a 14 point swing on one play and kept the Wildcats in the game.

The first half of this game was as wild a first half as I have ever seen. New Hampshire had four turnovers in that first half, two interceptions and two fumbles. The Wildcats also had a punt blocked that ended up in a safety and two points which was the final margin of victory too. To make things even more interesting, Northern Iowa contributed to the turnover party as they had three in the first half. New Hampshire continued to have trouble protecting the ball as they added two more interceptions in the second half while Northern Iowa played much cleaner with no more turnovers which helped them secure the win.

In last week’s preview of this game I mentioned how I thought R.J. Toman had to have a good game for New Hampshire to win and unfortunately he did not and it had a direct bearing on the outcome of the game. His two interceptions in the second half were key plays. The first came in the third quarter and was a “pick six” and ended up as the only touchdown of the half by Northern Iowa and their final points in the game as the New Hampshire defense pitched a shutout in the fourth quarter.

In the last 8:48 of the game, the Wildcats had the ball twice only needing a field goal to take the lead. New Hampshire’s first drive ended with Toman’s fourth interception on the day. The Wildcats last drive ended with Toman getting sacked on third down and throwing an incomplete pass on fourth down. R.J. had a great year for New Hampshire and received many accolades from opposing coaches, but unfortunately he had a bad game at the wrong time. However, this is a team game and I still feel that the Panthers dominated on the line of scrimmage and Toman was pressured often in this game. He is an outstanding athlete and will learn from this and be that much better next year.

One thing you can say about New Hampshire is that they never quit. I heard that more from opposing coaches all year about the Wildcats than I did about any other team and that seems to be a trait that is common in all Sean McDonnell coached teams over the years. I loved watching these guys play and they can hold their heads up high as they never gave up and all of us in the CAA are proud of you.

Richmond 33, No. 2 Appalachian State 13: While I knew Richmond was good enough to win the game, I have to admit that I didn’t see this one coming but in retrospect maybe I should have.

We have said all year that if we were going to get App it would have to be this year as they return almost their entire team for next year. Richmond’s “Stonewall Defense” is as good as it gets and a closer bunch of guys you will not find then the Richmond team. Armanti was obviously not a hundred percent and most of the players from Richmond had been their last year and knew what to expect playing at “The Rock". All those things factored in as Richmond took it to the three-time defending National Champions.

To put into perspective how huge a win this game was for Richmond, this was just the second loss in the last 44 home games for Appalachian State. It was the Mountaineers first postseason loss since getting beat by Maine 14-13 in a 2002 playoff game which snapped an incredible 13 game playoff winning streak. Many in Richmond are calling this the greatest win in Richmond’s football history, although the 1968 team which beat an undefeated Ohio U. for the Tangerine Bowl title might disagree.

Some people might feel that the first half was somewhat uneventful as it ended with App State leading 7-6 as both teams missed a field goal and Richmond missed an extra point. Actually though, the first half was very telling. It was obvious that something was wrong with AE as the game plan didn’t have him running at all, but rather standing in the pocket and passing. The second thing that was obvious was that game plan wasn’t going to work against the “Stonewall Defense” as App State couldn’t handle the rush; especially from the outside which was giving AE fits. So what this half told me was that Richmond was in the game and had a real shot at the Champ.

I think the Spiders must have realized that at halftime as they looked like they smelled blood in that third quarter. They played like madmen on defense especially Patrick Weldon who looked like he was operating at a different speed than anyone else on the field. Patrick looked like the equivalent of an AE on defense. He led Richmond with 11 tackles, nine solo, four for losses, one pass breakup and a sack. If you saw the game then you know what I am talking about, he was all over the field making one big play after another. In my opinion, he was clearly the mvp of the game.

Richmond scored the first 17 points of the third quarter to take a 23-7 lead and you could tell that they had the Champs on the ropes. Another good indicator of how much trouble App State was in came when the Mountaineers scored near the end of the third quarter to cut the lead to 10 points, 23-13. There was plenty of time left, especially for a team as explosive as Appalachian but instead of going for one point they opted to go for two and try to make it just a one touchdown game. That was a telling decision to me. It indicated that even with over a quarter remaining, coach Moore wasn’t sure they had two more scores in them. At least that is the way I saw it as it was way too early for that kind of play.

Here is the mind blowing statistic of the game; Appalachian only had 39 yards rushing and AE only had a net three yards. If I told you before the game that Armanti was going to play the entire game and I thought Richmond’s Stonewall Defense was going to hold AE to under ten yards rushing I wonder what kind of odds I could have gotten.

Many people are going to say that the seven turnovers for App against zero for Richmond was the key to the game and obviously you can’t ignore that statistic. But sometimes that is the result not the cause. What I mean is that the aggressive play of Richmond forced most of those turnovers. I got quite a few emails from some very disappointed and heartbroken Mountaineer fans but I have to admit, they were all very gracious in defeat and had nothing but praise for Richmond.

Many people will point to the fact that AE was not healthy as the main reason why Richmond won but after what I saw on Saturday I am not so sure that Richmond would not have won anyway. Injuries are always a part of the game and when almost your entire offense runs through one guy, like it does for App and JMU, then that is the risk you take. If you live by the sword then you die by the sword. App was able to survive an injured AE and go to their backup in the season ending game against Western Carolina. They were able to allow Armanti to sit back in the pocket and take South Carolina State apart with the passing game. Unfortunately, the level of competition caught up to them as neither strategy was going to work against a team of the caliber of Richmond.

I told you all last week that I would be cheering so loud for Richmond that they might be able to hear me down in Boone, well maybe not quite but my neighbors were wondering what was going on. Congratulations to Richmond for one of the biggest upsets of the playoffs in many years. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer and more deserving bunch of guys. And to App State, what a run guys! That was the most dominating run in the playoffs I have ever seen. You were great Champions over the past three years and really help put FCS on the map. Thanks and I know we will be talking about you again next year for sure as I look forward to more classic CAA SoCon matchups.

Last Minute Bulletin; After this column was already completed I was lucky enough to get to talk to coach Moore in a rare Wednesday conference call set up by App State as apparently they had many requests to talk to him. Ironically, coach Moore called from the road as he was recruiting in, guess where; Richmond! He was trying to get out of town before anyone knew he was there. I was first up to ask questions and I couldn’t resist as I had to know the burning question about the Richmond game; was AE hurt as we suspected or was that just some different game plan they wanted to use? Here was his reply; “He wasn’t a hundred percent that is for sure. Anyone that has seen him play knew that. He had a hip pointer that he got . . . about three weeks ago. Then he hurt his knee. Nothing that was a surgical deal more just aggravating. On Tuesday in practice it bothered him a little more than it had in the past, and he was just limited. He threw a couple of bad balls. He threw them off of his back foot. It is strange because he did the same thing against South Carolina State. He was trying to throw the ball away and he just didn’t have anything on it. Some of that is the hip pointer. The only time it bothered him was when he was throwing . . . he just really couldn’t throw the ball with the velocity that he wanted to.”

So there you have it, AE was definitely hurt which limited his running (knee) and throwing (hip), which pretty much confirms what we all thought watching the game.. Next I asked him to compare the Richmond defense to other teams he had seen this year and his response was interesting. Here is what he had to say; “Actually going in I thought that their defense would be the second best we played against. Obviously LSU was the best one. But they had two really fine defensive ends. Their inside guys were good players. One of the things that kept bothering us was their linebackers running through gaps. We didn’t pick them up. Number 39 [Weldon], he made some plays . . .”

I finished up my time by complimenting him on having been such a great champion for the past three years and how outstanding a run that was. He thanked me but then followed it up with this; “I appreciate that. We try to do things right and we are proud of our program and proud of our fans. At the end of our ballgame it was an incredible experience when all those fans in the stands starting cheering; ASU, ASU! We were obviously beaten as there was less than a minute to go. It was an awesome feeling!”

No. 1 James Madison 31, Villanova 27: I have watched both games between these teams now this year and because James Madison won them both, we have to assume that they are the better team, but NOT by much.

As you all already know, the first one was won by a last play miracle “Hail Mary” pass. In this game, after spotting JMU a 14 point lead, Villanova fought back and had a late lead at 27-24 with less than seven minutes remaining and had the ball with about a minute to go near midfield before a game clinching interception ended Nova’s hopes. I have a feeling that no matter how many games these two teams played or where they played them that the game would always come down to the last minute or second before it was decided, that is how close I think these two teams are in ability.

I had predicted last week that this game would be high scoring but after the first three series ended up in punts I was beginning to wonder where the offenses were. On James Madison’s second possession that put together a 70 yard drive on eight plays culminating in a six yard touchdown pass from Landers to Caussin for the game’s first score. The big play in this drive was a 44 yard bomb from Landers to McCarter.

Villanova’s next drive ended when Marcus Haywood forced and recovered a fumble on the Wildcat’s 40 yard line. It only took four plays to get it in the end zone as Landers hit Bosco Williams for 26 yards on the first play of the second quarter to take a 14-0 lead.

I talked to some people who were on the sideline at this time and they informed me that at this point, coach Talley was pretty upset with his team and he let them know it too. Apparently the pep talked worked as more fired up Villanova team quickly got on the scoreboard set up by a big 59 yard pass from Whitney to Szczur.

After a couple of exchanged punts, Nova’s John Dempsey sacked Landers and forced a fumble that was recovered by team captain Dalessandro on the JMU 36 yard line. Dalessandro was playing on sheer guts as he was injured and visibly hobbling. The Wildcats took eight plays to go the 36 yards and get a game tying score as Szczur went in from two yards out. And the half ended with the score all tied 14-14 as coach Talley had rallied his troops and we had the game we all thought we were going to have.

This game reminded me of a good heavy weight fight with these two teams slugging it out. As the third quarter started, it was JMU turn. They opened up the quarter with a ten play, 77 yard drive that ended with a 30 yard touchdown pass from Landers to Kerby Long as James Madison went back ahead 21-14.

Despite a bad kickoff that went out of bounds giving Nova good field position, the James Madison defense continue their superb play and held Nova to a three-and-out. James Madison put together another nice five minute drive going 60 yards in 10 plays before ending in a Dave Stannard 23 yard field goal making the score now 24-14 with less than three minute remaining in the third quarter.

But in this back and forth heavy weight battle, it was now Villanova’s turn. Whitney hit Brandyn Harvey with a nice 26 yard pass to complete a nine play 62 yard drive to cut the lead to four points as the extra point failed.

On their next possession, after one first down JMU as forced to punt giving Villanova the ball back with a chance to take the lead. They didn’t waste this chance taking nine plays to go the 69 yards for the go ahead score. The touchdown was a pretty play as Szczur took the direct snap and faked the run and stepped back and hit a wide open Stephen Pimm for 13 yards. Villanova now had the lead for the first time in the game at 27-24 with about seven minutes remaining.

JMU’s next drive was aided but what I think was a critical play and a bad call by the officiating crew. On that last touchdown, Pimm was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (excessive celebration) which in my opinion was questionable at best. Coach Talley was livid on the sideline with that call. Even if it was technically a violation (which I am not convinced it was) at that point in the game, you got to let them play a little. This is the fourth quarter of a quarter-final playoff game. Cut these guys a little slack. Don’t let a penalty like that have a possible effect on the outcome of a playoff game.

Correction; Thanks to Brian, a very alert reader who informed me that the penalty was NOT for excessive celebration but rather from Pimm taking his helmet off. I still am unable to confirm this, but assuming Brian is right than my apologies to the referees as they have to make that call.

So, as a result of this penalty, JMU got much better field position as they started on their own 46 yard line after the kickoff. Now it is crunch time and this is what separates the championship teams from the rest of the field. The Dukes took 11 plays to go those 54 yards for what ended up being the game winning touchdown. On the first series of this drive, JMU converted a big fourth and two when Griff Yancy went for 22 yards and a first down on the Nova 24 yard line. If the Wildcats stop them on that play then they probably win the game. Again, it is just one play here or one play there that is really all the difference there is between these two teams.

I have to mention again about the play of Rodney Landers. I will tell you here that I voted for him for the Payton Award. I picked Armanti second. I have a funny feeling that Armanti is going to win it, but I really believe that Rodney deserves it this year. This game was typical of a Rodney performance. JMU had 389 yards of total offense against a very good Villanova defense and Rodney accounted for 300 of those yards. He had 143 yards rushing on 26 carries with one touchdown. Passing he was 14-20 for 157 yards and three more touchdowns. So he accounted for all four touchdowns for JMU and 77 percent of their total yards. This year he is the best player on JMU, best player in the CAA and in my opinion, best player in the entire FCS.

A few Tailgate and Fan Pictures for you: As I mentioned last week, Mark Campbell was walking the tailgate section so here are a few pics for you, but you can see them all in Mark’s Photo Gallery of the game or Cathy Kushner’s Photo Gallery.


Time to celebrate another one!


Party hard guys! Are those chairs for Mark and me? How nice of you.


These two kind gentlemen entertained Mark for awhile. Thanks guys!


No Comment!


Speaking of hats – here is Hat Guy again. He always seems to attract a crowd.


Cathy Kushner took this one just for me. Thanks Cathy!


Some all bundled up and at the moment not to happy Villanova coeds.


Bundled up but much happier. Perhaps it is whatever is in those cups.


Not so sure I want to know what’s brewing in that pot.


Oh by the way, as a fashion statement, Redskin colors and JMU colors do not go together.


I got to get the story on this one from Mark next time I see him.

THIS WEEK’S GAMES

This is not going to surprise all you Montana and Northern Iowa fans as I am picking an all-CAA final this year. I have to admit though that I have gained a lot of respect for both of your teams but trying to put all my “homer” tendencies aside, I honestly feel that the two best teams left are Richmond and James Madison. The one good thing about this though is that all the talk is over, we get to find out who is really better on the field where it should be determined.

No 4. Montana at No. 1 James Madison: Friday 8:00 pm (Speed Kills): This game is a matchup of size and bulk versus speed and as the expression goes, “Speed Kills.” I like this matchup for JMU as I don’t think Montana has the speed to stay with the Dukes. I think Rodney is going to have a big day and when Montana starts to load up the box, Landers is going to burn them on the big play.

James Madison has to be careful here though as they need to hold onto the ball and not get behind early. If Montana gets a lead and if they can control the line of scrimmage with their big offensive line, then JMU will have their hands full. When I asked coach Matthews this week about what he thought would be the toughest matchup against Montana here is what he had to say; “Well their offensive line is so big we needed two screens to get them all on the screen when we were watching the tape . . . they are just really huge up front.”

I have mentioned here in this column several times during the year that I thought Montana was getting better each week and it seems that coach Matthews had the same observation; “It is obvious that they are improving every week and I think they probably played their best game Saturday [against Weber]. So I think they are peaking right in December . . . they are playing better every week, it is obvious on tape.”

What I noticed about Montana is that they are not going to beat themselves. They are well coached and very disciplined. This is going to be a hard hitting game, no doubt about that. Another concern for James Madison is how much do they have left in the tank. That was a grueling and hard hitting game last week against Villanova and right after an equally tough battle against Wofford. I hope Mickey has rested them some this week as they will need some “fresh legs” to be at their best against Montana.

This is another one of those games that the early lead may be very important. If JMU jumps out early they may very well win by a couple of touchdowns, however, if Montana gets up early then we are in for another nail biter in Harrisonburg. In the end though, I believe that the speed of James Madison, the athletic play of Rodney Landers, and the home field advantage will be too much for Montana to overcome.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [ - - - - - 5 - - - - - ]
TV Coverage: ESPN2, ESPN2HD, ESPN360.com

Richmond at No. 3 Northern Iowa: Saturday 4:00 pm (Defense against defense and the “Stonewall” prevails): If you like defensive football then you are going to love this game. The feats of Richmond’s defense this year are well documented and I think they have one of the best defenses I have ever seen in the CAA. However, there will be another great defense on the same field on Saturday. Coach Farley of Northern Iowa feels that this year’s defense is the best he has ever had since he has been there and he has had a few good ones over the years.

If you have been following this column during the year or even just Richmond football for that matter then you know how good the Spider’s defense is. However, it is not just the defense that gives them the edge here as their offensive line is very good too and they just love to “get it on” and try to dominate the line of scrimmage. Richmond’s offensive line better enjoy that kind of battle because they are going to get one in the dome against the Northern Iowa defense. But in the end, I think that Richmond’s offensive line will have more success against the Panther’s defense then Northern Iowa’s offensive line will have against that “Stonewall Defense.” Therefore I am predicting Richmond to win this one, but it will be very close and a low scoring game.

I do have a couple of concerns though. First of all, Eric Ward needs to NOT turn it over. As this is going to be a very close game when even one turnover may be one too many. It could also come down to the kicking game and Howard did not have his best day last week so I hope he can handle the dome as Northern Iowa has a great kicker with a lot of range. Because I think this game will be close, it could come down to a kick at the end.

My last concern has to do with a possible letdown. I know, you probably think I am nuts. Like how can a team have a let down when they are one game away from the championship? Several things can cause that and not the least of which was one of the greatest wins in the history of Richmond football last week. Combine that with a second week of travel and the unknown of playing in a dome with all that noise and I have a concern. When I expressed that to coach London this week he assured me that wouldn’t be the case. He said during the last lifting session after the App game that his team was sky high and really feeling good about themselves and very confident and excited. I hope all that is true as they will need everything they got to handle the Panthers in their dome. I really feel that Richmond is the better team here, but that is a HUGE home field advantage for Northern Iowa and Richmond needs to be ready for the noise early on and not dig a hole for themselves.
The Upset Meter Rating here is; [ - - - - - - - - - 9 - ]
TV Coverage: ESPN, ESPNHD, ESPN360.com

THE CAA-TODAY SIGNING OFF
That’s all for now, and enjoy this week’s semi-final games, they should be great ones. Hope you enjoyed the column and don’t forget to email me your thoughts and comments; CAA-Today@verizon.net

PHOTO CREDITS
Please recognize the effort by the following people who have supplied the photos for your viewing pleasure in this article.

Take a moment this week and view the photo galleries from all our photographers listed below. This week’s has some of the best action shots of the year. I think you will enjoy them. Don’t forget, coming up in few weeks is our photo of the year contest so stay tuned.

JMU Nova game and tailgate photos; courtesy of Cathy Kushner and Mark Campbell
Northern Iowa UNH photos; courtesy of UNI Sports Information
Richmond App State photos; courtesy of Keith Cline
Additional Richmond App photos; courtesy of Willis Glasgow, WG Sports Photography