By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — James Madison and Eastern Kentucky are two teams with championship histories, but their routes to the NCAA Division I Football Playoffs have been more like postseason upstarts.
James Madison won the 2004 national title and was top-seeded and reached the semifinals in 2008, but the Dukes needed wins in their final two games just to make the playoff field as an at-large entrant.
Eastern Kentucky was the first true powerhouse in the Football Championship Subdivision, winning the crown in 1979 and 1982 and reaching the finals four consecutive times during that period.
But the Colonels came up short for the Ohio Valley Conference automatic bid, despite sharing a co-championship with the team that did win the playoff berth, Tennessee Tech, and Jacksonville State.
On virtually no one’s radar to earn an at-large bid, Eastern Kentucky did just that and will host James Madison in a matchup between two 7-4 teams in the first round game that will be played at noon at Roy Kidd Stadium and will be televised by ESPNU.
This is the 20th playoff appearance for Eastern Kentucky and the 10th for James Madison.
The winner will advance on to the second round next week against No. 2 seed North Dakota State.
JMU started the season by winning four its first five games, but then injuries and suspensions to several key performers contributed to three losses in the next four games, beginning with a 25-24 overtime loss to Maine on a two-point conversion play that may have been the most dramatic finish to a game this season.
But after enduring a 28-10 thumping at New Hampshire, the Dukes responded with a 31-13 victory over Rhode Island and a 34-17 win at Massachusetts to scratch into the field.
JMU has a defense that is built on speed and that has helped the Dukes rank 10th in rushing defense (95 yards per game), 12th in total defense (305 yards) and 15th in scoring (19.3 points per game).
If James Madison has a weakness defensively, it is in defending the pass. The Dukes are rated 63rd in pass defense, giving up 210 yards per game.
Defensive end D.J. Bryant and linebacker Stephone Robertson are among the leaders of the Duke defense.
A team couldn’t be much more unbalanced on offense than JMU. The Dukes rank 10th in the country in rushing (233 yards) and 117th in passing (117 yards).
That has meant that James Madison has been extremely erratic with its option-based attack. The Dukes are 69th in total offense (349 yards) and 79th in scoring (23.2).
Athletic quarterback Justin Thorpe (838 yards of total offense) missed five games, due to a suspension for violating team rules. In his absence, Jace Edwards ran the offense, but Thorpe returned for the past two wins.
When healthy, Dae’Quan Scott is a dangerous runner (1,166 yards rushing, 12 TDs). The workhouse Scott had 251 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 30 carries.
Special teams has also been a weakness at times this season for coach Mickey Matthews’ team.
Eastern Kentucky is making its third playoff appearance in five years, but after the success of Roy Kidd — one of the few members of the 300-win club among college coaches — makes the bar of success awfully high for current coach Dean Hood.
The player that makes the Colonels roll on offense is electric quarterback T.J. Pryor. pryer has piled up 1,704 yards of total offense and has thrown 18 touchdown passes, with just seven interceptions.
EKU has had a trademark running game over the years and the latest feature back is Matt Denham, who has run for 1,445 yards and nine TDs and ranks third nationally in rushing.
Eastern Kentucky is extremely unbalanced on offense, just like JMU. The Colonels have been the 22nd-best rushing attack in the NCAA (203 yards) and 106th in passing (150 yards).
That has allowed EKU to score 28.9 points per game and average 353 yards per game (65th).
On defense and special teams, All-American defensive back Jeremy Caldwell has led a unit that has been inconsistent.
The Colonels are 85th overall in defense (390 yards), with splits of 162 yards against the rush (73rd) and 227 yards passing (94th). But EKU is tougher in the red zone, giving up 23.6 points per game (41st).
There was some controversy earlier this week when it was discovered that JMU — the No. 3 team in FCS in attendance at 25,002 fans per game — had been out-bid by EKU for a home game.
But the crowd isn’t expected to be a big factor in this contest.
This game is likely to come down to which team is able to force its will — running the football — on the other squad.