Saturday December 4, 2:00pm, ESPN+, Bridgeforth Stadium, Harrisonburg, VA
Southeastern Louisiana scored touchdowns on its first three possessions and never looked back on the way to a dominant 38-14 win over No. 22 Florida A&M in the first-round of the FCS Playoffs last Saturday night in Strawberry Stadium. Southland Conference Player of the Year, reigning Walter Payton Award winner and SLU quarterback Cole Kelley finished 31-of-45 for 345 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. Kelley’s top targets were Nolan Givan (6 catches, 74 yards, 1TD) and Taron Jones (5 catches, 85 yards, 2 TDs). Fullback Nick Kovacs caught a Kelley scoring throw and rushed for a score.
James Madison took home two major Colonial Athletic Association Football awards, and 14 total players were honored on the 2021 all-conference teams, headlined by quarterback Cole Johnson being voted Offensive Player of the Year and kicker Ethan Ratcke repeated as Special Teams Player of the Year. Joining Johnson and Ratke on the All-CAA First Team were wide receivers Kris Thornton and Antwane Wells Jr., offensive lineman Nick Kidwell, defensive lineman Bryce Carter, linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey, cornerback Greg Ross and long snapper Kyle Davis. Making the Second Team were defensive linemen Mike Greene and Isaac Ukwu. Rounding out the year with Third-Team accolades were kick returner Solomon Vanhorse, linebacker Kelvin Azanama and punter Harry O’Kelly.
Southeastern Louisiana Lions. 9-3
Southland Conference At-Large Qualifier
Southeastern Louisiana boasts the number one offense in the FCS. They score 47.1 points per game and gain 561 yards per game. Cole Kelley, the current holder of the Walter Payton award as the best player in the FCS and one of the favorites for the award again this season, has thrown for 4727 yards (nearly 400 per game) and 42 touchdowns. But Kelley isn’t just as passer. He is also the Lions leading rusher with 480 yards and another 16 touchdowns. In 507 pass attempts this season, Kelley has thrown just seven interceptions and has completed 73.7 of those attempts. There is no single target for Kelley. There are eight Lion receivers who have over 300 yards receiving on the season. 12 different pass catchers have scored touchdowns this season, but Kelley’s top target is Austin Mitchell – he’s caught 69 passes for 1,055 yards (15.29 ypc) and nine touchdowns.
Defense is another story for the Lions. They rank 84th in the FCS in points allowed per game (30.5) and 96th in total offense (425 yards per game). But, the Lions do have 17 interceptions on the season, six by Zy Alexander. They have 32 sacks and 67 tackles for loss as well. So there is talent on the defense, but they are on the field a lot and give up a lot of yards and points. Their offense can usually outscore whatever the defense gives up. The Lions allow 4.7 yards per rush which is 92nd in the FCS. They are also 97th in third down defense.
James Madison Dukes 10-1
Colonial Athletic Association Co-Champion, At-Large Qualifier
James Madison received the #3 seed in the playoffs and had a bye last week. The Dukes finished the season 10-1 and shared the CAA title with Villanova. JMU took most of the week off and had a soft return to practice Monday night. They had a full practice on Tuesday. Coach Curt Cignetti said Monday that some injured players, such as running back Lorenzo Bryant, would be back this week. He also said running back Latrele Palmer is close to 100 percent after playing hurt the last couple weeks of the season.
James Madison isn’t as prolific offensively as Southeastern Louisiana, but then again no one is. But the Dukes are still one of the better offenses in the FCS. The Dukes are fourth in the FCS in points per game (39.6) and 17th in total yards (439). Cole Johnson has led the Dukes offense this season and is a finalist for the Walter Payton Award. On the season, Johnson has thrown for 2953 yards and 32 touchdowns. The key is that Johnson has thrown just two interceptions all season. The pass game has two talented receivers- Antwane Wells Jr and Kris Thornton. The dynamic duo has combined for 136 catches for 1890 yards and 22 touchdowns. The Dukes have other weapons in the pass game. Nine different receivers have caught touchdowns. The run game has struggled for the Dukes. With a young offensive line, JMU has struggled to run the ball, especially in goal to go situations. While the Dukes average 164 yards per game on the ground, they only gain 4.2 yards per rush which is 57th in the FCS.
Defensively, James Madison is one of the best teams in the country. They rank 9th in points allowed per game (15.5) and second in yards allowed per game (257). The splits are good between run and pass, they excel at both where they rank 10th against the pass and 5th against the run. The Dukes are also second in red zone defense and first in turnover ration. This defense gets the ball back to the offense. The Dukes have sacked opposing quarterbacks 33 times led by 8 from Isaac Ukwu and 7 from Bryce Carter. JMU has 96 tackles for loss again led by Ukwu and Carter. JMU’s defense has eight players with at least one interception as well.
You cant mention the Dukes without bringing up kicker Ethan Ratke. He is 28/31 on field goals and 49/50 on extra points for 133 points on the season. Ratke is the NCAA leader in career field goals with 100 and points with 525.
Fun Note: This game will feature a set of twins playing against each other. Austin Douglas is a running back for James Madison. Justin Douglas is a defensive back for Southeastern Louisiana.
These two teams have never faced each other. Both offenses are prolific. The big difference is the strength of JMU’s defense. They’ll be able to get off the field more consistently than Southeastern Louisiana’s will. That will be the difference in the game where the Dukes eventually pull away.
Fearless Prediction: James Madison 44, Southeastern Louisiana 20
Jamie is a proud 2002 graduate of James Madison University. He’s witnessed the growth of the program from no one in the stands in 1998, to the hiring of Mickey Matthews, to the 2004 National Championship, to the 2008 team, to the struggles in the early 2010s, and finally the rebuild under Mike Houston. He also allegedly really enjoys Washington, DC-based Stanley Cup winners.
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