The Massachusetts football team travels to James Madison on Saturday with an imbalanced offensive performance to show for a balanced conference record.
“Last week, we had to throw the ball a lot more than we normally would,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said. “We’re going to come out and try to be balanced and you have to be balanced against JMU, because if they know you’re going to pass it, they’ll gang up on you in those pass-rush lanes.”
Both teams are struggling in conference play, losing consecutive games to Colonial Athletic Association opponents and standing in the Football Championship Subdivision polls.
No. 18 UMass (4-3, 2-2 CAA) dropped 10 spots in the Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25 and FCS Coaches Poll in two weeks, following losses to Richmond on Oct. 16 and New Hampshire last week.
Morris perceives the urgency of this weekend’s game, along with the rest of the regular season, as the playoffs approach.
“If you win, you’re in. You’ve go to win these games,” Morris said about the importance of the upcoming schedule following Saturday’s game. “Certainly, our backs are against the wall, absolutely.
The No. 15 Dukes dropped four spots this past week after losing to No. 6 Villanova, 14-7, on the road. JMU upset Football Bowl Subdivision opponent and No. 13 ranked Virginia Tech on Sept. 11. Since then, they have lost three out of four in the CAA, including two home games against Delaware and UNH.
The top-ranked Minutemen offense gained more yards than normal on Saturday, with quarterback Kyle Havens and wide receiver Anthony Nelson registering career-high numbers. Their efforts did not translate into points, however, dropping the first inaugural Colonial Clash to New Hampshire, 39-13, at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
With a struggling ground attack, Morris acknowledges his team’s strength in offensive production and their necessity to remain balanced to ensure a winning performance.
“We’re capable of running on all cylinders, which we have been at some points this year, when we can get the ball up and down the field and do it very well,” Morris said in a CAA teleconference on Monday. “We know we have the potential to be explosive, because we’ve been there, done that. But, you have to do it every down, every snap in this league or it’s not going to come to fruition.”
The Minutemen entered last week’s game tied for second in the CAA in scoring offense, but were unable to score through the first three quarters against the Wildcats.
Havens threw for a 450 yards on 32-of-55 passing with two touchdowns and one interception. Nelson caught the bulk of those passes, with 11 catches for 190 yards, good for fourth best in school history and garnering College Performance Award consideration.
The typically balanced UMass offense saw a decline in its rushing production in the past two weeks. The Minutemen, led by the running duo of John Griffin and Jonathan Hernandez, gained 149 yards against the Spiders and 43 against UNH, down from its season average that now stands at 175.9 yards per game (third in the CAA, 33rd in the Football Championship Subdivision).
Saturday was the first time this season that UMass failed to break 100 yards and the stout JMU defense will make it difficult to get off the snide.
The Dukes are ranked second in the league in total defense (280.7 yards per game) and first in pass defense (149.6 ypg). JMU give up 13.4 points per game, allowing more than 16 points once this season against New Hampshire on Oct. 16.
Turnovers have plagued UMass this season, overcoming them in road wins early in the season and falling victim to them as of late.
The Minutemen gave possession away three times, leading to 15 Wildcat points and hold a turnover margin of -6 this season (last in CAA). They also went 2-for-4 on fourth down conversions, dropping from its FCS leading spot in that category to seventh (73.7 percent).
The last meeting between the two teams was on Nov. 14, 2009. JMU rushed for 212 yards in a 17-14 win at McGuirk Stadium. It was the Dukes’ first win in Amherst since 1987.
The Minutemen hold the all-time series lead 7-6-1.
Dan Gigliotti can be reached at email@example.com.