Sunday, January 15, 2017

36 Hours in Dallas: On JMU, National Championships, and the Rise of Purple

On Saturday morning, the drive from our airport hotel out to Frisco takes the better part of half an hour. It's a full 15 or 20 minutes, cruising down some wide Texas freeway in a Lyft operated by an off-season UNT football player, before it occurs to me to ask what he knows about JMU.

“That’s Virginia, right?” he says.

Yeah, I say. I’m on a fact-finding mission, wondering what the exposure for Duke Dogs and streamers and 21-16 is outside of our mid-atlantic bubble.

“There’s lots of coal mining and shit there, right?”

“Nah. That’s West Virginia,” Meghan and I both say at once.




Of all the days to have a meeting with the general manager of your company, obviously I draw the morning of Friday, January 6. I’ve been back in the world of newspapers for three months now, and its time for an annual reflection on the state of print journalism. The nine people in my office get together in our cramped conference room at 10am. We talk about an improving sports section, about how our features were a touch weaker this year, about Virginia Press Award submissions, about how we'll redouble our efforts in this upcoming cycle. Randy, our fair-minded, forty-something editor-in-chief, reminds us that print sales lost 19 billion in revenue from 2005-2015, which spurs a generational debate between young online gurus and old-school print writers. I'm somewhere in the middle, as usual, seeing the merits of both arguments.

By 12:30, I’ve put away my notepad and started the car. My copilot Meghan and I are off from the Valley to LaGuardia.

Wait, LaGuardia?

Yeah… LaGuardia. We saved about $1,000 in airplane fare by hiking up the Valley to NYC. And since she splits an apartment in the Fan with three friends, and clearly I’m not making six figures in a depreciating news job (see: $19 billion in lost revenue), I’m willing to drive a few more hours for the extra cash in my account at the end of the month.

Our 8pm flight is, predictably, delayed. We don’t leave the city until ripping a few Maker’s Mark shots and spending 45 minutes at the wrong gate. When we finally get to the right one, there’s a noticeable amount of purple in line to board. This, I like.

We don’t get to our hotel room until after 2am. We collect whatever sleep we can, then load up on coffee and beer at a Valero gas station across the street. When the beer is paid for, Meghan calls for a Lyft.

Meghan and I get to Toyota stadium right around 9am, giving us two hours to eat, drink, and be merry. If we`re all being honest here, most of us were skipping out of the eating part in favor of getting National Champion-level wasted. We're meeting up with a giant group of friends who hung around my apartment during the Sunchase years (2011-2013). All arrived on a large black party bus and parked it up against the edge of the blue lot, outside the east gate. All are alumni. All root pretty aggressively.

Image may contain: 20 people, people smiling
photo credit: Keith Hart

It doesn’t take long – maybe 15 minutes or so – for this tailgate to become one of the most surreal game day experiences I’ve ever had. On our arrival, our friend Jim is in the middle of his eighth beer bong of the morning. Football alums are present and numerous; Jacob and Evan Nicely, roommates from the Sunchase era, both did work with the athletic department and are on good terms with a lot of recent players. Jordan Stanton is hanging out, and tells us that every single NFL Duke is here for the game… well, everyone except Moats. We’ll have to give him a pass, since he and the Steelers had some business to attend to the following day.

Later, Charlottesville's Daily Progress quotes Stanton, as he's on the field immediately following the game. "You did it! You're a national champion!" he yelled out while embracing Khalid Abdullah, per Ron Counts' Jan. 7 story.

It doesn't take long before other people are joining Khalid and Jordan on the field. Thousands of Dukes fans rush the field for JMU's ascendance as national champions.

If JMU's 2004 championship caught fans' attention, then this 2016 trophy might start an all-out rush to the bandwagon. JMU, a school whose fanbase I've always thought to be luke-warm, is in the midst of its most fervent fandom cycle ever. And it's pretty hard to miss the signposts, too. One Youngstown fan behind me who I struck up a conversation with at halftime asked if JMU always traveled this well. Well... no. So what gives?

Frankly, a lot of it is the younger audience. I wasn't at all surprised at how many 30-somethings I saw lining the tailgate lot, but I was straight-up shocked at how many recent grads made the trip down to Frisco. Part of that is an increasing visibility on the Internet -- my own wordtrap has existed for years, and JMU Sports Blog is even older, but there's been an explosion of "unofficial" JMU websites and Twitter accounts over the last 2-3 years.

Part of it is an increase in watchability, too. Mike Houston's 2016 squad exists at the apex of how entertaining football can be. The defense is disruptive, the offense is explosive, and both sides play to bruise the other team. You can't even skip the special teams plays and cut to the bathroom early, lest you miss JMU block a punt or return a kickoff.

Increased watchability goes back prior to Houston's arrival in Harrisonburg, too. To be fair to Everett Withers, even his all-offense, no-defense, party-in-the-endzone wax ball of frustration was fun to watch. It annoyed the hell out of us in games that mattered, but Vad and Co. were never boring.

And speaking of Vad, I ran into him while leaving the field. Friendly as ever, he was looking happy and healthy in the first row of the stadium. I couldn't tell if he was sitting there the whole game, or if he had just moved down after the game went final. I hope he was entrenched there from the first second of play -- if any former player deserves front row seats to watch JMU play for a championship, to watch this team win it all, it's the kid who set the table in the first place.

"Go Dukes," I said, holding up my fist in solidarity.

He gave me a big, teethy smile. "Go Dukes," he responded. It was quiet, but forceful.

Meghan and I hung out in the tailgate lots for an extra hour or so after the game, catching up with more friends, internet personalities, and the occasional friend-of-an-ex. But we were operating on borrowed time. We both needed to crash after the game, as all the alcohol and jet lag and running around were beginning to hit some sort of conscious-threatening critical mass. So we jaunted back to our hotel for a quick two-hour respite, then woke up and prepped for Round 2.

Later that afternoon, thousands of Dukes fans had swarmed a block in Frisco in The Shops at Legacy, celebrating the championship loudly and proudly. A big, cavernous bar called Scruffy Duffies -- kind of built like the Harrisonburg Macado's, if you moved the bar up against a wall and just left all that space open with hightop tables and chairs -- was a revolving door for purple-clad singers and dancers. After a few beers at the bar with the tailgate crew, I joined up with Sports Comm friends for most of the evening and watched a line that extended out the door from 6pm until after 1am when we left.

For a while, it was all JMU fans and alumni. But as the evening went on and Frisco natives started showing up, you could clearly tell they were all trying to figure out what was going on. A few even came up and asked me. "Are you guys having a convention in town or something?" Or, "where the hell is JMU?" Or, "why are there so many hot girls here?"

Sure, we drank the stadium out of beer, and JMU will hold a tenuous third-place spot in the Capital One Cup standings for a while, before the winter sports start crowning champions. There were a lot of fun parts of a weekend in Dallas, charging the field and unloading streamers in the stadium despite constant PA warnings not to. But one of the more undervalued parts of this weekend was the insane exposure JMU got. When College GameDay came to the Quad in 15 months ago, I saw a report that estimated the exposure for JMU was worth over $10 million. I'm not sure how much this weekend was worth, but I bet it was a lot.

The exposure is awesome, but I was completely unprepared for the response in the Harrisonburg community. I've talked openly about the conflicted relationship the city of Harrisonburg has with the University, and how JMU won't be able to take the next step beyond regional relevance without support from the Valley.

It's funny the cache a national championship will buy you.

If Harrisonburg and the Valley at large start to buy into JMU football as a destination event every fall. forget about it. That's the kind of thing that propels everything to the next level -- the Game Day experience, the tailgating scene, the reputation of the program. Everything.

JMU has everything in place to go on a multi-sport tear over the next several years. They've got the facilities. They've got the budget. They've got an incredible, undervalued communications department. Now, they're even getting the fans and the pedigree. The last 18 months of JMU athletics has been special, but it might be only the beginning.

"Wait a minute, I'm starting to remember something about your all's school," our friendly North Texas football Lyft driver says to us as we're leaving the highway and entering Frisco on Saturday morning. Suddenly, we could see purple garments lining every sidewalk.

"Don't you guys have a really awesome band?"

I smiled and nodded in the back of the car.

"Yeah, we do," I said. "But the football team's pretty damn good, too."

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Consortium VII: JMU Football Eyes Regicide in FCS Semifinals VS North Dakota State

Here we go. This is the game we've all been waiting for. A Friday night matchup of brutally impressive, starkly great teams. JMU vs North Dakota State. Winner plays for a natty.

The moment feels too big for my voice alone, so I've gathered another roundtable to parse what is arguably the most high-profile JMU football game of our lives.

Our panelists today:

  • Meaghan MacDonald, former sports editor at The Breeze & current Sports Page Designer at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead
  • Wayne Epps Jr, former editor-in-chief of JMU's The Breeze & contributor to the New York Times
  • Joe Kerlin, Editor at Bison Illustrated
  • Todd Davis of JMU Sports Blog
  • Me. A professional twitter egg who fakes his way through journalism during the daytime.

  • Let's get to our questions.

    1. North Dakota State is the five-time reigning national champion. The Bison are facing a dangerous team who could finally dethrone them, and blah blah blah. 

    We've all heard this storyline hastily assembled every week in December for the last half-decade, and the Bison haven't lost one yet. So tell me: does JMU have any chance to win this game?

    Meaghan MacDonald:  I have lived in North Dakota now for about three and a half years and in Fargo specifically for a year and a half. Every year I have heard 'this is the playoff game where the Bison go down,' and every year they keep winning championships. I am kind of numb to this question and also bitter. But a streak can't last forever, and JMU does have a chance to end the dynasty. With the loss of Fargo's hero QB Carson Wentz to the NFL, and some major injuries to some key players (linebackers Nick DeLuca and Pierre Gee-Tucker) the Bison have looked shakier than in the past and are probably at their "weakest" in the last six seasons. And I say that with a touch of sarcasm. JMU’s biggest advantage is how effective it’s been on the road. The Dukes had probably the most challenging road slate in the CAA -- traveling to Maine, New Hampshire, Richmond and Villanova -- and came out untouched. However, the chance to upset NDSU has been automatically shaved down due to the location of Friday's game. The Fargodome is by far the loudest and most intimidating arena I have ever been inside of. The ferocity and ear-splitting loudness can really rattle a team if they are not used to playing in a dome on the regular, and it doesn’t help that the team doesn’t have an indoor practice facility to prepare for something like the dome. I would give the Dukes around a 50 percent chance of topping the Bison.

    Wayne Epps Jr: Absolutely. Coming off its historically dominant performance against Sam Houston State, and also its resounding win over New Hampshire in the second round, JMU has strong momentum at the right time. And, at 49.6 points per game (which now leads the FCS), the JMU offense can seemingly put the Dukes in a position to win against almost anyone. On top of that, JMU had big regular-season wins over Maine, New Hampshire, then-No. 6-ranked Richmond and No. 9-ranked Villanova on the road. So, I think the Dukes are well prepared to leave Bridgeforth Stadium and go toe to toe with NDSU at the Fargodome.

    Joe Kerlin: If a blonde-haired Kanye West can meet with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower, anything is possible. But we’re talking about the FCS Playoffs, not the reality show that is our country so, no. James Madison has zero chance.

    JMU Sports Blog: Of course they do. This Bison team has looked more vulnerable than other vintages. Iowa, while tough, was a perfect matchup for them as they play similar styles and the Hawkeyes didn't run away from people. NDSU lost at home to SDSU this year and really struggled out of the gate in the opener with a good-not-great Chuck Southern squad. They grind like always, play mistake-free ball, and are enormous up front, but with the exception of QB Stick, they don't appear to have the game-changers at the skill positions at quite the level they have in other years. The Dukes are definitely capable and have the talent to pull this off if they can avoid injuries and turnovers.

    Chase Kiddy: Absolutely, and any Bison fans who tell you they don't are deluding themselves into the same fan-fiction reality that they mock other teams for. The Bison are an extremely tough team to play against, particularly in Fargo. But let's address the elephant in the room. North Dakota State is merely 'very, very good' this year. They are not the unbeatable juggernaut they were under Brock Jensen a couple years ago. JMU is a great, physical team in its own right, and they are capable of winning it all this year.

    2. The prevailing notion around much of FCS football is that, with apologies to Eastern Washington, Fargo's Friday night game features the two best remaining teams. Is Friday a de facto national championship game?

    MM:  I would say yes. I wouldn't rule out Eastern Washington 100 percent, but JMU or NDSU has it pretty much locked up. The Eagles did lose to the Bison by only six points in overtime during their Sept. 10 meeting and ended their season on an 11-game winning streak. However, playing in the Big Sky definitely doesn't help their case. The conference overall was weak and definitely helped in padding the Eagles’ statistics. If it comes down to a rematch between the Bison and the Eagles, NDSU definitely takes it since the Bison haven't lost to the same opponent twice in the same season for years and Frisco is basically homefield advantage for them. For the Dukes, the CAA is a mix of a little bit of everything which definitely sets them up for success against Eastern if they should match up.

    WE: That’s a fair assessment. The NDSU vs. JMU matchup is certainly not short on intrigue. NDSU’s well-documented national title streak and its 18-0 FCS home playoff record will be on the line against a team in JMU that really appears to be firing on all cylinders. I don’t believe the national championship game on Jan. 7 will be a cakewalk, but you have to think that the victor in the NDSU vs. JMU game will be feeling good about its chances to win it all.

    JK: When there's a team left in the tournament that scored 44 points against the Bison, it's hard for me to call Friday night's game a “de facto national championship.” If anything, last week's NDSU-SDSU's Dakota Marker Pt. II was closer to a national championship. We had two opponents who knew each other better than anyone else in the country, to go along with the narrative that the Jackrabbits were the last team to beat the Bison. The tale of the tape told you it was going to be a tougher fight for NDSU. There’s no doing justice to how emotional and psyched up the city of Fargo and the players were for that game.

    Oops, I think I just talked myself into hangover-game-potential for the Bison. Can I go back to the first question and give JMU a 10 percent chance to win?
    Also, before I move on here, I just want to say I wouldn’t mess with Youngstown. If it weren’t for Martin Ruiz stashing heat in his glove box, the Penguins could’ve pulled the upset and earned a trip to Frisco. But you CAAers would hate to see another Missouri Valley Football Conference matchup in the championship game for the second time in three years, wouldn’t ya? ;)

    JMUSB: We don't really think so. All four teams are past champs with deep history and if you've made it this far, you're a legit threat to win it (Or at least every team was before this NDSU run). And as we see in Bowl Season for FBS every year, after grades come in and the holiday break, playing in January can go many different ways. In other words, teams may lose kids to academic suspensions, off-the-field New Year's crap, or even go the other way and truly lock in on the extra preparation available for the Championship game. All four head coaches remaining have proven their bona fides and would each scheme like crazy with the extra time to gameplan.

    CK: Part of me wants to say yes. In some ways, Eastern Washington is a less talented version of JMU, and Youngstown State is a less talented version of North Dakota State. Some twisted form of logic leads to the conclusion that, yes, whoever wins this game between JMU and North Dakota State is the likely national champion.

    I'm going to say no, though, because I think that's probably a little disrespectful to Eastern Washington. EWU is actually ranked higher in the Sagarin Rankings than JMU, so while I actually think the Eagles are the best remaining matchup for the Dukes, I wouldn't say tomorrow night's winner is a lock to win it all, either.

    3. From JMU's perspective, what's the scariest part of playing NDSU this week?

    MM: The Bison defense is second-to-none. Their front seven has been playing out of their minds and gave even the most fruitful offenses fits all season. Two of the biggest threats on defense are Menard and Stumpf.  The junior defensive end has 15 tackles for loss this season and 10 sacks while Stumpf is leading the team with 79 tackles.

    WE: The NDSU defense. The Bison have the ninth-ranked total defense in the FCS, allowing 310.2 yards per game. On the other side, JMU has the third-ranked total offense in the FCS, averaging 532 yards per game. The Bison are also third in the country in scoring defense, yielding just 15.8 points per game. And, on the ground, NDSU has the eighth-ranked rush defense with 99.2 yards allowed per game, while JMU has the fourth-ranked rush offense with 291 yards gained per game. The Dukes will be looking to crack that stout Bison unit, and allow its assortment of playmakers to keep producing.

    JK: The size and speed of the linemen on both sides of the ball for the Bison is the scariest part for JMU. The offensive line consists of grown men with three seniors and a junior who have started the last 11 games together. The defensive line is missing their best defensive tackle, but they’ll rotate around 10-11 guys. Oh, and one of the guys responsible for molding these linemen is assistant strength and conditioning coach Ryan Napoli. SB Nation’s Spencer Hall called him a bear once.

    *Googles JMU director of football strength & conditioning*
    Good Governor. His nickname is Big John. Let’s move the chances of the Dukes winning up to 20 percent.

    JMUSB: All the exterior noise that surrounds teams this time of year. JMU appears to be a team that's developed a deep belief in itself, but that will truly be tested in prep week for playing the 5x champs way beyond The Wall and wondering if you can really do it. On the field, we think Coach Houston is correct that this team has been built for this particular matchup and closed the talent and coaching gaps as well as any team during NDSU's run, but will they be able to maintain their belief when they're tested so much. We certainly think so!

    CK: When I wrote this question, I thought I was going to say the noise. The FargoDome is loud as hell, and while the Dukes has played exceptionally well on the road this year, they're not going to have heard anything like what they'll see tomorrow night. But Mike Houston says the team has a plan to deal with the crowd noise. As far as I'm concerned, he's pitched a perfect game this year in terms of coaching maneuvers, so I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's earned that.

    Instead, I'll say North Dakota State's offensive line and ball-control strategy. JMU is not a quick-possession disciple of the spread offense, so I'm not losing sleep over Time of Possession concerns. That being said, North Dakota State's offensive line is gigantic. I think JMU's defensive front is subject to being exposed by big, giant offensive lines. The Dukes can counter by bringing their Spur defensive back into the box to clog things up, but even still, I think the front is susceptible to being worn down.

    4. When Friday evening rolls around, what's the key matchup to watch for?

    MM: There are two that come to mind. The first is JMU junior QB Bryan Schor against NDSU safety Tre Dempsey. JMU once again has found a solid QB in Schor who has racked up awards and accolades this season and the proper recognition. The numbers he’s put up this year are insanely impressive and will be fun to watch in person. Dempsey has been all over quarterbacks this year and made it a mission to make them pay for the smallest mistakes. He has six interceptions on the year and will be sure to have Schor right in his cross hairs.

    The second is the play calling vs. the noise of the Fargodome. I can’t stress enough how difficult it is to play in the dome. The Bison have taken advantage of their fans and slaughtered innocent teams who are new to the arena. JMU last played in Fargo in 2011 and no current player was a part of that team. Some members of the coaching staff were a part of that team. JMU’s defensive coordinator Bob Trott was on Richmond’s staff last season when they came to Fargo.

    WE: The NDSU defensive front vs. the JMU offensive line. This could be a formidable fight. The Bison will certainly be looking to keep running backs Khalid Abdullah and Trai Sharp (who had a combined 285 rushing yards and five touchdowns against Sam Houston State) at bay. If they get going, it could spell trouble for them. The JMU offensive line will want to provide the room for Abdullah and Sharp to flourish, and the time for quarterback Bryan Schor to spread the ball around. Who will win the battle in the trenches?

    JK: The wind chill versus the amount of Fireball one can handle is always a fascinating matchup, but this is always the case during playoffs in Fargo so let’s go with a matchup with a little bit more nuance. Thankfully, NDSU built a dome in 1993 so this game will be inside. Unfortunately for Bryan Schor, said dome gets as loud as a plane leaving the runway. The matchup of the game is Schor against a crowd of just under 19,000. Let’s look at a stat line because stats are fun sometimes.

    • 55% Completion percentage
    • 171.44 yards/game
    • 8 Touchdowns
    • 21 Interceptions
    • 42 Sacks
    What you just read is an 18-game aggregate sample size of how opposing quarterbacks have fared in the Fargodome during NDSU’s current 18-game-home-playoff winning streak. Schor is a great player and maybe the best signal caller to ever step foot in the Dome during the playoffs. With that said, his best friend Friday night is going to be his running back Khalid Abdullah. He’s going to be the most important player for the Dukes against NDSU, no question. If he gets to 30 touches, it will mean a couple things: more opportunities for big plays and more clock JMU will chew up against this Bison football team that possessed the ball for over 40 minutes in its quarterfinal game. By the way, I don’t think this will happen so I’m moving your chances of winning back to five percent, JMU.

    JMUSB: JMU's defensive front six/seven against NDSU's run game. In fact, there's not another matchup that even comes close to matching this one in terms of obvious importance. If NDSU grinds the clock and wins Time of Possession by a huge margin like they did against SDSU last week, the Dukes are in big trouble. On the other hand, if JMU's defense can get off the field on third down and force NDSU to test JMU's deep and talented defensive backfield enough, eventually a big play will come for the Dukes. A couple players to really keep an eye on this week will be Simeyon Robinson, who played last week, but is slowly recovering from injury along the D-Line. He can provide much-needed depth along the front if he's still improving. Also, LB Dimitri Holloway, who may get his biggest opportunity yet for the Dukes and he'll need to step up.

    CK: I know I just spent two paragraphs talking about North Dakota State's offensive line, but I actually think the most important matchup in the game is JMU's offensive line versus NDSU's defensive front. Like the Bison, JMU's offensive line enjoys a pretty hefty advantage over their counterparts across the line of scrimmage. You have to assume that NDSU is going to put together some drives. They're going to get their's. If Khalid Abdullah and the run game can establish drives of their own and give the offense a chance, they can outscore the Bison. That's the blueprint.  

    5. JMU at North Dakota State. Friday Night, 7pm, ESPN2. Who ya got?

    MM:  I have been waiting for this matchup since I moved to North Dakota. It's been a long four seasons of football watching the Bison dominate again and again and enduring overly confident and equally annoying fans, but the streak needs to end. Who better than the Dukes? As long as their rushing attack is sharp, mistakes and penalties are limited and the Fargodome doesn’t get in their heads, the Dukes win a down-to-the-wire game in Fargo 24-21.

    WE: JMU 41, NDSU 35. I just believe the high-powered JMU offense will end up being too much, even for NDSU’s standout defense, and the Dukes will outscore the Bison at the Fargodome.

    JK: First of all, we can agree this is the playoff matchup everybody wanted to see with the number one offense in the country against the Bison Dynasty. What more could football fans ask for? JMU can embarrass you in a hurry (see: here, here, also here and here). But NDSU hasn’t been embarrassed since the release of 808s and Heartbreak. People around here are confident for the exact reasons mentioned in the first question: “The Bison are facing a dangerous team who could finally dethrone them, and blah blah blah.” NDSU fans and people like me have seen this story unfold too many times. We’ll get nervous pregame talking about the opposing team’s impact players, then NDSU’s backup linebacker Chris Board will make a big hit on the opening kickoff, the quarterback gets sacked by Greg Menard to end the first series and then one of NDSU’s quartet of running backs will break a big play. It’s happened too many times to teams outside of the Missouri Valley that try to step in during playoffs and end the dynasty.

    The key to NDSU’s current 22-game playoff winning streak has been the mix of experienced leadership and young guys looking to make a splash. This year is no different. You could argue quarterback Easton Sticks has epitomized both. Yes, he led NDSU to the championship game last year when he went 8-0 in relief for the second pick in the NFL draft. But he hasn’t started in an FCS Championship. He’s hungry. He wants to cement his legacy next to Carson Wentz and the all-time FCS leader in wins Brock Jensen. Stick won’t let JMU get in the way of history.
    Bison by two touchdowns.

    JMUSB: Duuuuukes! 23-21 on a Tyler Gray FG at the horn. We think this will be a ridiculously hard-fought game and lower-scoring than most people think, but we think Schor, Abdullah, and Ravenel find a way to make enough plays when it matters most.

    CK: All good things must come to an end, and North Dakota State seems as vulnerable as they've been in years. I have so much respect for North Dakota State and everything they've done... but give me the Dukes in the Game of the Year, 27-24.

    Monday, December 5, 2016

    Hangover: JMU blasts New Hampshire; Penn State gets Snubbed (but not really); West Virginia MBB tops UVA

    Well that's one way to end a playoff wins drought.

    JMU 55, New Hampshire 22

    So much for Bryan Schor being rusty. Schor admitted to being a little nervous for his return to Bridgeforth Stadium, but clearly his game didn't suffer any sort of dropoff after missing a few weeks. JMU rolled up 50+ points for the fifth time this season; the team accumulated 500+ yards of offense for the ninth time this season. Brandon Ravenel dominated the New Hampshire secondary in a way that ostensibly ended the game by halftime.

    Overall, offense and special teams played a game that's pretty hard to criticize. That includes Tyler Gray, who was a perfect 2/2 on field goals and 7/7 on extra points.

    And how about the defense? Before New Hampshire's final drive, the Wildcats had 179 yards of total offense. Yeah. 179. Against JMU's defense. These last few games, it really seems like the 4-2-5 defensive scheme has settled in and caused serious issues for opposing offenses. For the first time in quite a few years, it doesn't feel like the Madison defense is less than the sum of its parts.

    I don't want to go too far over the top on praise for the defense. The unit played well, but Trevor Knight also played like garbage, and it was very noticeable. Sometimes, New Hampshire's offensive stagnation was directly tied to good coverage or clogging running lanes up front. Just as often, Knight was just missing passes. I'm not telling you that New Hampshire would have won if Knight could have gotten his shit together, but there were numerous passes where Knight just missed his guy, and the coverage/pass rush had very little to do with it.

    That probably won't be the case in a Friday night matchup with Sam Houston State.


    You'd be forgiven if you couldn't tell while watching on TV, but the absolute turning point in the game was when the referees stopped the game to quiet JMU's band. I've never seen a group of fans so personally offended by the whims of a referee. I've also never seen a referee stop play to warn a band, which makes me think UNH coach may have said something about the band before the game.

    The MRD's were noticeably more conservative in picking their spots to play throughout the remainder of the game, but the crowd more than picked up the slack. Right after the announcement, in particular, was the loudest I've ever seen the student section. (The student section, by the way, was not a real student section on Saturday -- it had wayyy more alumni packed into it than usual.)

    Either way, the message was clear. Don't fuck with the Marching Royal Dukes, zebras. The student section spent many of the remaining TV timeouts chanting "Free the Band." It was the most spirited I've seen the section since it so relentlessly went after Kevin Grayson in the 2009 Richmond game.

    Overall, I was really impressed with the crowd members that actually showed up... but 13,000? Come on, JMU. You can do better than that.

    Oh, and let's not forget the two 30-something Dukes fans sitting right behind me that tried to talk shit to my friend Andy for going to the bathroom in between series. "He must be going to change his tampon," the guy said in front of his young kid. And his wife piled on! Can we lock this shit down, JMU fans? Good grief.

    Sam Houston and the Benefits of Easy Scheduling

    Sam Houston State played a team in September called Oklahoma Panhandle State. That is not a joke. That's the team they opened up against. They won 59-21. OKPS -- I'm guessing that's the appropriate acronym, but obviously, no one worth talking to has any clue how the hell to abbreviate this midwestern masterpiece -- is a Division 2 School that plays in the Lone Star conference. The crown jewel of the OKPS athletic department, and I swear I'm not making this up, is its Varsity Rodeo Team.

    Men's and women's teams, obviously. They wouldn't want people to think they're some kind of backward school full of rednecks.

    Anyway, back to Sam Houston. It's not a new storyline with these Bearkats. They ran the table in a shitty conference and haven't really proven themselves. They've got a coach (KC Keeler) who thinks it's a travesty that they're only the No. 5 seed. A 56-43 win versus McNeese State is okay, I guess. Their most impressive win is holding on to beat Chattanooga last week 41-36, which I very vocally did not think would happen. Kudos to them for proving me wrong once.

    However, I suspect they won't do it again. Sam Houston is an offensively gifted team, and will probably score a good number of points on Friday night. I'm going to say 30+. But their defensive numbers against mediocre teams (27ppg) suggest they will not be able to keep pace with a JMU team that has more playmakers on both sides of the ball. The traditional wisdom is that, in an offensive showdown, it's the defense that ends up making the difference. I'm looking for JMU's improved unit to give up points, but ultimately win the game with big stops in the second half.

    West Virginia Locks Up Dana Holgorsen & Gets to 10 Wins

    After a 24-21 win over Baylor, Dana took a few shots at the playoff selection committee, wondering aloud if the team didn't get the respect they deserved because they "win ugly." He followed up -- "all this team does is win." Well, except for the two games against Oklahoma teams, but yeah, Dana, your point is well-taken.

    I actually have a column coming out this week that'll address this, but I've become increasingly frustrated with criticisms of Dana Holgorsen and Skyler Howard this year. Skyler isn't a perfect quarterback. His spectrum of performance can range from impressive to awful. There are drives where I watch him and go, "Geez, no wonder this guy didn't get any D1 scholarships." He can be frustrating, but when he's on, he's great to watch. I wish people were more patient with him. I wish people didn't boo him.

    The Dana criticisms are infuriating though. For all of the descriptors we ascribe to West Virginians, entitled usually isn't one of them. Yet there's a surprisingly vocal portion of the fan base that is used to years of Big East championships and wants to fire Dana for failing to win Big 12 championships. They think West Virginia athletics is the center of the universe. They seem to not understand why wins are so much harder to achieve now, as if winning at Texas and winning at Rutgers were parallel events.

    West Virginia football turns 125 this year. Dana Holgorsen just won 10 games for the ninth time in the history of the program. He's done it twice in six years, now, too. And if they can beat Miami -- which they certainly should -- the 2016 Mountaineers will tie the single-season record for 11 wins. (Other people who have coached multiple 10-win seasons in Morgantown: Nehlen, Don; Rodriguez, Rich. That is all.)

    What Dana Holgorsen has done is simple in concept but difficult in execution. He's taken a talented-but-flawed regional program and built it into a Power-5 program that's deserving of respect. He's piping more West Virginia players into the NFL than any coach in the history of the program. He's showing growth as a coach. The program is showing growth. And next year, with a blue-chip quarterback available, the Mountaineers very well could challenge for its first Big 12 championship.

    This year, with an erratic quarterback and so few returners on defense, was never supposed to be a year for success. Instead, West Virginia's depth and contrarian schemes propelled them to a 10-win regular season. In 2016, this WVU team has won in spite of its quarterback, not because of it. That's how many championship teams are built. It's nice to have more than one way to win these days.

    Major congratulations to DH on a job well done. It's been ugly at times, but never unimpressive.

    Choose your own Adventure Narrative: Some thoughts on the CFB Playoff Selections

    Depending on which teams you like or hate, you can choose any number of complaints to lob into the committee's meeting room down in Texas. 

    Some people seem to think Penn State got screwed because it won the Big 10 championship game, but was left out of the playoff. PSU won the best conference in college football, and along the way, they beat a very good Ohio State team that was included in the playoffs.

    Also included: No. 4 seed Washington. The Pac-12 champions played bad teams in its out-of-conference schedule and beat them soundly. Meanwhile, PSU played Pitt and Temple, going 1-1 in each of those games. The Nittany Lions also lost to Michigan in conference play by approximately 3 million points.

    The narrative was clear. If you want to make the playoff, schedule easy teams and win your conference. Reese Davis and other ESPN commentators recognized this in real time as the rankings were being revealed. It was bandied about quite a bit on Twitter.

    I want to make the following counter-argument:

    1. Each case is a little different, and trying to assign an overall narrative/scheduling strategy won't hold up over time.

    2. Ohio State was included in the playoff because of their OOC wins, directly refuting the idea that easy OOC games are the definitive way to make the playoff.

    Everyone knows what happened with Baylor in 2014, and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby wants some sort of crazy explanation as to why Baylor wasn't included two years ago, but Washington and Ohio State were included this year for reasons that seem to fly in the face of the reasons provided against Baylor in 2014. But doesn't it make the most sense to take everything in proper context? 

    Ohio State doesn't have the "extra data point" of a conference championship game, but did they need it? The Buckeyes pass the eye test, and they've got multiple wins over Top 10 teams. 

    Washington played a bad OOC schedule, but they won a conference championship game and had multiple ranked wins in conference play. In 2014, Baylor didn't really have either.

    In the case of Penn State, don't those early losses have to count for something? Additionally, you can give them credit for the Big 10 championship game if you like, but I view championships as a function of a team's greatness -- not an expansion of it. Penn State's win over Wisconsin doesn't hold more merit than Ohio State's win over Wisconsin just because the game was played in December as a "championship" game -- if anything, it's less valuable. Ohio State won at Camp Randall; Penn State won on a neutral field.

    Penn State proved a lot of people wrong about how good of a team they were by winning the Big 10 championship. That includes me. But the idea of the playoff is to get the best four teams into the playoff. To me, that means finding a compromise between those who are the best and those who are the most deserving. By the end of the season, Penn State had proved they were at least deserving, but I'm not convinced they were one of the four best teams in the country. To me, the No. 5 ranking felt appropriate, though I wouldn't have had an issue with them at No 4, either. 

    MBB: West Virginia 66, Virginia 57

    I've yet to watch the film on this game -- it's currently queued up on my Xbox, for when I've got a spare 90 minutes -- but it's no small feat to beat a talented UVA team in Charlottesville. The Cavs haven't lost at JPJ in almost two years -- Duke beat them 69-63 on January 31, 2015, two months before winning the NCAA tournament.

    West Virginia was dropped to No. 25 in the AP Poll after a brutally bad first half sunk them in a tournament final against Temple. Polls are reactive by nature, but that was a bad adjustment. This season, West Virginia is without Jaysean Paige (last season's leading scorer) and all-everything forward Devin Williams (left early for the NBA). Somehow, they might be better this year anyway. 

    Under Huggins, West Virginia has always been a team that struggles to generate offense, which is the whole reason for the press in the first place. This year, though, West Virginia is getting more consistent shooting from mid-range. That means more chances to set up the press, as well as less reliance on it for offensive production. WVU was picked second in the Big 12 behind Kansas, and could legitimately end KU's reign. Huggins has had more success against the Jayhawks than any other team in the Big 12, and his style of play will likely confound this year's young Kansas team even more than it did an older, more savvy team during last year's three go-arounds.

    It's a really great thing for college basketball that UVA and WVU have now split two games over the last two seasons. A budding Virginia-West Virginia rivalry could be an awesome addition to each school's calendar. Tony Bennett might be Bob Huggins' antithesis, but both are stupendously good coaches, and a recurring home-and-home series would be awesome for everyone involved.

    Plus, maybe ESPN will finally realize West Virginia is its own state? But hey, I don't want to aim too high.

    Vid of the Week: 

    I would like to apologize to all the people I randomly sent this to without explanation last night. I was just... excited. Yeah. Very excited.

    Debts and Diseases Double-Down

    3-2 on the weekend. I didn't give it out in this tweet, but y'all know I was all over WVU+8 in MBB. This week, I'll start handing out CBB/NBA picks. I got on a real hot tear through December NBA lines last year -- we'll see if I can do it again this year. Merry Christmas to all.

    Friday, November 11, 2016

    Pregame: JMU, Villanova Headline Best Division 1 Game of the Weekend

    There's been lots of blogging this week -- this is my fourth post in eight days -- so I'm going to keep this week's Pregame short for you guys. We're probably all pretty tired of all the analysis this week has generated, anyway.

    (That, and I'm writing this from a friend's couch in Loudoun County, so I'd like to wrap this up quickly.)

    Welcome to Seattle

    The GameDay crew is headed to a game featuring an I-guess-they're-good Washington team and an I-guess-they're-getting-better USC. Which is all well and good, I suppose. The Pac-12 is down this year, and with the average viewer is starting to get a little tired of watching the same four teams on Saturday morning. Combine the two, and you've got a game where the hype is more manufactured than endemic. But hey, maybe something crazy will happen.

    However, if Reese and Co. strictly went to the best game of the week, they'd likely be setting up shop in suburban Philadelphia, on the Catholic grounds of Villanova University.

    Wednesday, November 9, 2016

    An Open Letter to Democrats, from a Moderate who didn't vote for Trump

    Dear Democrats,

    Well, here we are. In a few weeks' time, we will address Donald Trump as the President of the United States.

    Responses in person and from social media have been, to put it mildly, a nuclear wasteland of liberal anguish.

    Some have been measured. This morning, a coworker told me that she was scared. A college friend worried about access to birth control. A boss feared the immanency of a recession.

    But some reactions have been more aggressively reactionary.

    I saw a gay friend ask, "You assholes want to try and vote away my rights?" Then, he proceeded to reference the gay acts he would publicly commit in protest.

    One female classmate from college proclaimed, in all caps, "To the 53% of white women who voted for Trump... How dare you!"

    One was a Muslim friend who told all Republicans and third-party voters, regardless of context, to fuck off and cease communication with her. Full stop.

    Let's get this out of the way. I am a mostly progressive, right-leaning moderate conservative libertarian. I do not support Donald Trump. I did not vote for him. I hated the campaign that he ran. I hated the lack of substance, the tangents, the transparently dismissive marginalization of people who do not look like me, a white male. It's not what America stands for. It's not even what Republicanism stands for.

    I am fortunate in that, as a white male adult, I will probably never be singled out by a President Trump. He probably has no plans to grab me by my balls. He does not wish to deport me. He has never stated that there should be a ban on me. As such, there is a certain level of outrage that I cannot access. For this, I am deeply empathetic to friends and fellow citizens.

    But here's the thing. We've been detailing the faults of Donald J. Trump for, like, over a year now. He is a lecherous, narrow-minded, free-styling con-man who fearmongered his way into a thinly-veiled attempt at political discourse. He is a political neophyte who, from all appearances, remains unable to accept criticism and unable to restrain himself from his basest urges.

    Democrats: through a never-ending series of missteps and mistakes that range from disagreeable to disqualifying, Donald Trump was the best opponent you could have possibly asked for. You had every fucking advantage here, liberals. And yet... you lost. You lost the most puzzling, confusing election of any of our lifetimes. You need to own that. You need to take your medicine, so that you can get better. And if you are a petulant child who is incapable of that, then maybe just stop reading at this part here.

    Still here? Cool. Let's talk about the Democratic Party. Because this is your fault, too.

    Monday, November 7, 2016

    Hangover: JMU offense too much for Richmond; A&M & Baylor stumble

    At one point in the second half on Saturday, the kid sitting next to Meghan and I inside Robbins Stadium let his frustration boil over. JMU was driving into Richmond territory for approximately the one zillionth time that game, and there were no signs of Richmond stopping the Dukes any time soon. The JMU run game wasn't breaking off 30 yards at a time, but it was converting short-yardage situations at a clip well above 50%. Bryan Schor was absolutely having his way with Richmond's back end. It was the latter part that ya boy seemed to take issue with.


    I couldn't help myself. I leaned over Meghan, caught his eye, and snapped back, "You hadn't played JMU yet."

    I got the chance to talk to a lot of Spiders fans while sitting behind enemy lines in section 215, and one of the impressions I left with was that they had assumed the 2015 team was virtually identical to this 2016 team -- all flash, no fire. They also showed up with the idea that JMU's offense was potent, but if you could stop Abdullah, you could stop the Dukes. They didn't believe the defense was capable of making any stops against an offense of Richmond's caliber. Maybe most importantly, it seems some of them even thought that Richmond's defense would bottle up JMU's offense completely, limiting them to only two or three touchdowns.

    At this point in the season, JMU's offense is firing on a level that I would have previously thought unimaginable. The emergence of Alls as a championship-caliber playmaker, as opposed to just another talented wideout, is one of the many features this team can sport during the final two games of the regular season. JMU can sling it around like Vad & Co. did last year, but their greatest ability was on display yesterday, particularly in the first half -- running with tempo.

    Watch JMU on the third or fourth first down of a long drive. They'll snap the ball quickly on first down, and run the ball through the B gap for six or seven yards. When the defense brings extra defenders into the box, Schor can pick apart a collapsed field; if the defense stays thinned out, the offensive line can continue to snap the ball quickly and run with pace. The combined pace and strength of the offensive line wears down almost any defensive front -- even a really, really talented on like the one in Richmond. And make no mistake... this Richmond team, beat up in the backfield as they are, is a really good team.

    Before I move on, I do want to mention something a few people have asked about -- what happened on the sideline at the end of the game? For those who were watching on TV and could only hear the announcers referencing it, there were two guys down on the field level on the UR track, and one of them started talking trash to the JMU sideline after the game was in hand. It wasn't probably anything you haven't ever seen before, in terms of back-and-forth trash talking, until the Richmond guy left the track and entered the JMU sideline. As in, on the grass, amongst the players.

    Predictably, 50-some JMU players did not take kindly to a Richmondite getting in their faces on their own sideline. Some tables were knocked over, and some shoves were exchanged. I would love to know what UR guy's best-case scenario for walking into the opposing team's sideline was and starting a fight... either way, a field-level police officer had a brief exchange with his buddy, which I imagine went something like this:

    Police Officer: "Excuse me, bruh, but you'd be wise to seize control of this current conflict by initiating a retreat of sorts, because if I have to, none of the fair denizens of Robbins Field, including and especially your friend, are going to like the series of events that shall unfold."

    Friend: "Hmm. You've articulated quite an excellent point, sir. Thank you for sharing your view of this unfortunate incident. I shall respond as advised."

    Police Officer: "You're quite welcome, young man. Thank you for acting in such a steadfast and responsible manner, saving me from escalating this incident of aggression any further."

    The friend grabbed him from behind around the small of his neck and drug him back off the field and onto the track, where he was escorted out of the complex.

    Throughout the game, UR had basketball players down with field-level access, throwing t-shirts from the track into the stands. My assumption, which is a 100% guess, is that these two guys are somehow linked to the UR basketball team.

    Anyway, back to the game. We've all been enjoying this one for a couple of days already, so I'll leave you with Fox Sport's great preview that we all somehow missed, Richmond Times-Dispatch sports editor Mike Szvetitz's column from after the game, and some footage Curt Dudley recorded and posted to Facebook. This is from the UR series toward the end of the game that ended with a turnover on downs. Unsurprisingly, he was nice enough to let me post it here. JMU fans -- y'all root. I'm proud of you.

    Checking in on the Big 12

    We've talked several times this season about how Baylor is unproven and over-ranked, but ----

    wait, does that say SIXTY-TWO?!

    Look, I've been captain of the "Someone please explain Baylor's rank to me" club all year, but losing at home to TCU by forty points? I don't think anyone saw that coming. Baylor has been loudly touting their defensive metrics in conference play, but no one was impressed that they led the Big 12 in scoring defense after two byes, plus game against Oklahoma State, Kansas and Iowa State.

    Still, I would have thought Baylor to be a top 4 finisher in Big 12 play, with potential losses to Oklahoma and West Virginia. With that home win in hand vs Oklahoma State, the Bears looked like they would at least nominally challenge for the Big 12 title; with a December game in Morgantown and a tilt with the Sooners on tap this weekend, Baylor could easily be a .500 team in conference play this year.

    West Virginia 48, Kansas 21

    This game, frankly, was not as close as it looked, and it doesn't look all that close to begin with. West Virginia led 31-0 at halftime; it was 45-7 late in the third. It was unsexy and methodical and more of the blue collar descriptors that have come to describe this particular 2016 West Virginia team.

    I have been more nonchalant toward polls this year than I ever have been before, but I'm fearful that West Virginia's placement at No. 20 in the first playoff rankings may leave them with too much room to make up to legitimately challenge for a playoff spot. The Mountaineers are on playoff life support anyway, but theoretically, their loss is a good one -- it came before November, on the road, against a good team. At 7-1 on November 5, and with a high-profile, top-10 matchup still left on the docket, it would only be somewhat outrageous for them to mount a comeback to compete for a playoff spot.

    Obviously, the Baylor result hurts them. For West Virginia to truly still have a shot at representing the Big 12 in the playoff, it needed to notch marquee wins against Oklahoma and Baylor. For Baylor to be considered a "marquee" win, it needed to show up with as few losses as possible. Now, a three-loss Bears team by November's end is not only possible, but downright likely.

    I'm interested to watch the committee's newest rankings this week and next week to see if any sort of correction occurs. You don't have to believe this WVU team is elite, but at 7-1, they probably belong in the top 15. I'm not sure wins over Kansas (awful) or Texas (inconsistent) do much to raise the profile.

    Aggies trip at Mississippi State

    Yeah, sure, you can cite Trevor Knight getting hurt, and I guess that plays a part here. But I went back and watched a sped up version of this game Sunday night, and Mississippi State's offensive line just worked A&M's front. That's what this game came down to. A&M was unable to stop State from extending long drives -- State's eventual game-winner capped a 14-play, 73-yard drive -- but they also couldn't stop the home run ball. State had two touchdown plays of 60+ yards in the first half. The Aggies were down two touchdowns at halftime, and without Knight, they just couldn't recover.

    Soooo, where did Texas A&M land in the polls after their second loss of the season, the most recent of which game at the hands of a team who is under .500, won't win another game the rest of the year, and gave up 41 points to something called Samford?

    They're still in the Top 10.  #PollsAreDumb

    Let's be Nerds

    I'm starting a new recurring segment today titled "let's be nerds," where I impart to you current event knowledge that I find interesting, yet is almost definitely useless and generally lame.

    This weekend, I saw a story about a Japanese designer named Hajime Narukawa who invented a new map to replace the germanic Mercator map that was pioneered hundreds of years ago, and generally misrepresents the sizes and centrality of certain parts of the map -- particularly Greenland and central Europe. The math and science behind it is next-level nerdy/boring, but you can find a short writeup from Wired here.

    If you're like me, reading even three sentences of this story may have reminded you of The West Wing and Leo McGarry's Big Block of Cheese

    (For what it's worth, President Obama has hosted a BBoC day the last three years -- replete with an enviable amount of puns -- and Gary Johnson hosted one in New Mexico while governor/has pledged to continue the practice if ever elected in the future.)

    It's #N7Day, Y'all


    Let Them Eat Goats

    Presented without commentary.

    Please Vote.

    We end the Hangover with a civic reminder -- please go vote tomorrow. If you failed to register, or have mailed a ballot in, I suppose I'm not talking to you. But surprisingly, there is consistently a fairly large discrepancy between the number of registered voters in America and the number of actual votes cast. The takeaway: lots of people are opting not to register to vote at all, but some people are registering without following through, too.

    I'm not going to lecture you on politics one way or the other. Many of you know that I support Gary Johnson; I'm happy to talk privately about why I've chosen to support him over other candidates. I don't want this post to be a call to arms for any particular candidate, whether it's Trump, Clinton, Johnson, or Joe Exotic. Whoever you support, whatever your rational -- please study the ticket tonight, and take some time to vote tomorrow. 

    After all, the only difference between a democracy and an oligarchy is participation. 

    Friday, November 4, 2016

    The Weekend Pregame: Is JMU-Richmond the best rivalry in Virginia? Plus N7 Day and other nonsense

    Before we dive into #RichmondWeek, let's take a hot second to bask in the reflective glow of last year's JMU-Richmond circumstances.

    That shit was the coolest thing I've ever been a part of. Certified.