Spring 2021 FCS Round 1 Playoff Preview: Virginia Military Institute vs James Madison

This game features two teams at opposite ends of the historical FCS spectrum. On one side, there is James Madison; a perennial National Championship contender and regular playoff participant. JMU is one of the blue bloods of the FCS. On the other side is VMI, a team who went a combined 1-21 in 2017 and 2018 with the one win coming against a non-FCS opponent. But in 2021, these teams are equals and will match up in the playoffs. This will be VMI’s first playoff appearance in school history. By contrast, this will be JMU’s 17th appearance and 12th since 2004 when they took home their first FCS Championship. The Dukes also won the FCS National Championship after the 2016 season.

VMI at James Madison
TV: ESPN3 (subscription req’d)

To say it was a surprise that VMI won the Southern Conference would be a massive understatement. The last time the Keydets had a winning season was 1981. From 2014 through 2018, they won only 18 games against FCS opponents. But the page was turned and this spring has been a different story. Scott Wachenheim has to be the favorite for the Eddie Robinson Award as coach of the year. The Keydets went 6-1 in the spring season to win the Southern Conference. VMI is 20th in the FCS at 30 points scored per game and 16th in total yards. The Keydets feature a pass game that averages 313 yards per game. Reese Udinski entered the season as the top returning player in the Southern Conference and got off to a good start. Unfortunately he missed the last three games due to a knee injury, ending his VMI career. Freshman Seth Morgan stepped in and the offense never missed a beat. Defensively, VMI ranks 40th in yards allowed and 28th in points allowed.

James Madison battled a number of issues with starts and stops through the Spring. The Dukes had their own COVID-related two week pause, returning only to see their final two opponents encounter the same issue.

Early in the season, the Dukes had some uneven performances on offense. Against Robert Morris, Cole Johnson threw three first half interceptions and the score was knotted at 16 at the half. The Dukes pulled away in the second half of that game.

It took significantly longer to get on track against Elon the next week. Another uneven first half at quarterback and on offense in general had the Dukes looking at a 17-3 halftime deficit. A late third quarter switch to Gage Maloney finally sparked the offense to 17 unanswered points to maintain their unbeaten record.

After returning from their COVID pause, the Dukes have been much more efficient, combining to beat William & Mary and Richmond by a combined 61-16.

James Madison is one of the more balanced teams in the field. On offense they rank 13th in both points and yards per game. JMU features a number of strong running backs with a run game that is 5th in the country. The Dukes defense is extremely stingy. They are second in the country, allowing just 9.8 points per game and in the run game they yield just 45 yards a game, number one in the FCS.

Players to Watch on Offense    

VMI

Wide receiver Jakob Herres is a Payton Award finalist. He leads the Keydets with 67 catches, 807 yards and 7 touchdowns in just seven games. He should be a focal point of the attack this weekend

Quarterback Seth Morgan may just be a Freshman but he is playing like a veteran. Morgan is completing 76% of his passes for 1088 yards and 8 touchdowns

JMU

Running back Percy Agyei-Obese is also a Payton Award finalist. He leads a stacked JMU backfield with 381 yards and five touchdowns. At 5.5 yards per carry, Agyei-Obese is key to keeping the chains moving for the Dukes

Wide Received Kris Thornton transferred to JMU from VMI, so this game should be special for him. Thornton isn’t a big guy at just 5’8”, but his 18.3 yards per catch give the Dukes a big play option.

Players to Watch on Defense

VMI

Linebacker Stone Snyder was named a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award. With 76 total tackles and 8 sacks, the Dukes offense will have to account for him on every play.

Linebacker Conor Riddle gives VMI a strong pairing at linebacker. Riddle has 72 total tackles including 10 for loss and 5 sacks. He will be counted on to neutralize the run game.

JMU

Defensive End Mike Green is also a Buck Buchanan Finalist. Green moved from tackle to end this year and spends a lot of time in the opponent’s backfield with 8 tackles for loss.

Linebacker Kelvin Azanama waited his turn for consistent playing time and it has payed off. Azanama is a run stopper and plays all downs.

Fearless Prediction: Jamie: VMI is the Cinderella story. But there is no glass slipper. Teams don’t come into Bridgeforth Stadium and win. Look for the Dukes defense to suffocate the Keydets and move on to the next round. James Madison 31, VMI 13

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