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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall?

As the line in the old Disney movie goes, “mirror, mirror on the wall who’s the fairest one of all?” Now that we’re down to four teams in the Semis, we are getting close to the answer. The next two winners punch their ticket to Frisco. The closer we get, the more I am going to throw at you in my analysis.

This week we get the Dukes of James Madison, the only team to beat us in the FCS playoffs in the Dome. The pollsters have them #2 in the land, just behind Sam Houston (how did that work out) and ahead of the Herd whom they put at number three. The committee smartly and rightly placed them behind us or we would be traveling to JMU. JMU’s portfolio was thin going into the playoffs. The only ranked/playoff team they faced in the regular season, Villanova, beat them at home.

How good are they? Opening betting lines have the Herd at about six points. What can we say about the Dukes? Let me give you my overall feelings and then show the basis for them.

I think JMU and Sam Houston State are very similar in that weak schedules have over inflated their strengths and hid their weaknesses. Last spring Sam Houston played a pathetically weak, shortened spring schedule. Added to that coach Keller had spent two years retooling his roster to be more run oriented and much tougher on defense, especially stopping the run (Both those years they didn’t make the playoffs and lost to UND home/away). After going undefeated in the “regular” season against a weak schedule, they won close games over tougher competition in the playoffs and the final gift was having the Jacks starting QB go down in the first quarter of the Frisco game.

Following the same script this fall, the Bearkats breezed thru an easy schedule. They struggled in their opening playoff game, barely getting by Incarnate Word in a shootout (the same Southland Conference Champ the YSU Penguins beat 44-41 in its opening game of the season). The party ended when the Bobcats of Montana State marched in last Saturday and ended their home win streak as a send off to the FBS.

What happened to the number one team in the land? A pathetically weak schedule caught up to them. Running up lopsided scores against average and bad teams isn’t necessarily a sure sign of being a strong team with a deep bevy of championship players on its roster.

Okay Dober, how does that relate to JMU? The overall rating of SHSU and JMU were very close. At mid-season the BearKat foes were 183.4 on an averaged Sagarin rating. The Dukes foes were 175.5. Not a big difference. The Kats barely got past their toughest Sagarin foe Stephen F Austin (also a playoff team) scoring 15 4th Qtr points to post a 23-22 win (SHSU’s starting QB was out that game with injury, which is big and is a topic we will soon comeback to in reference to JMU).

JMU also played one playoff team in the regular season, Villanova, and lost at home 28-27. The Jacks just dispatched Nova at home handily. When a team tied for the bottom of the MVFC at 2-6, YSU, has one more victory over playoff qualifying teams (Incarnate Word, Mo. State & SIU) than the whole 12 team CAA conference (Nova over JMU & William & Mary over Nova), don’t beat your chest on how tough your schedule is.

Let’s look at some of my standard metrics of analysis. How did JMU and the Herd do against the best in the FCS? For those new to my writings these are teams that rank 149 or lower on Sagarin. Many AQ (automatic qualifier conferences) have teams over the 150 mark, but at large bids fall under the 149 mark consistently.

What do we find under JMU’s hood? They played 4 teams that hit these criteria. They went to Weber in the 3rd game of the season, beating a team fresh off of losing their starting QB (37-24). Faced and lost a close hard fought game at home to Villanova 28-27 in 5th game. Didn’t face another team under 150 until facing SELA at home in 2nd round of playoffs. They soundly crushed this offensive only club from the powder puff Southland Conference, 59-20. Coming into the playoffs the Lions had lost to FBS LA Tech 45-42, Incarnate Word 55-52 (yes the same one the YSU Penguins beat and the team that almost upset #1 rated Sam Houston in the 2nd round 49-42), they finished off the regular season’s losses by falling to Nicholls 45-42. Think of that? Your offense scores 42, 52 and 42 and you lose all three games. Finally last weekend, the Dukes dispatched the Griz 28-6. In this report you’re going to see a consistent occurrence, the other team losing their starting QB. We will address that as a separate issue.

So how did the Dukes do on defense against these clubs? The only one generating more than 400 yards of total offense (TO) was SELA (2nd in Nation at 561.2 YPG), the other three average around 370 YPG in TO (very average, 53/123 FCS). The Dukes also were very average in defending them; giving up 361.5 YPG (would be 51/123 in FCS). Only Nova (ranked 33rd at 170 YPG) had a decent rushing attack. The Dukes slowed these four teams from averaging 154.7 YPG rushing to 103.5 YPG. Reducing their production by about a third and really making them one dimensional. The sore thumb is the abysmally poor showing by SELA. They took a close 21-13 deficit with under 3 minutes till halftime and with two quick turn over’s allowed JMU to get an insurmountable lead at 38-13.

They slowed these teams scoring down from 35.3 PPG to 19.5. Throwing out SELA (47.2 PPG), the other three averaged 31.3 PPG and the Dukes held them to 19.3. Anything under 20 PPG is potential championship caliber defense. They sacked these QB’s 10 times (gave up nine, so +1 there). They were +7 in turn over’s (10 to 3), but the abysmal showing of the lions skewed these numbers (they were sacked 4 times and gave up 5 turnovers). So overall, JMU played solid defense against these top foes, but two of the four didn’t have their starting QB’s.

How did Code Green do in comparison? The Bison played nine teams under 149 in Sagarin, so there is no doubt our strength of schedule is much greater. 70% of our opponents were playoff strength to 30% for the Dukes. These offenses produced against all other foes not named the Herd at 385 YPG (42nd in FCS), ran the ball 173 YPG and scored at a rate of 29 PPG.

Code Green put the strangle hold on these nine teams. We slowed total offense to 274 YPG (almost a 30% reduction), clamped their running games by 47% to under a 100 YPG (93.2) and slowed their scoring to a paltry 14.2 PPG, thus cutting it more than in half.

Can I ask the relevant question, if JMU played 5 more high ranked Sagarin teams (9 like the Bison), might their overall defensive stats have suffered?

Now to the other side of the ball, how did JMU’s offense do against these higher rated Sagarin teams? JMU put up strong numbers totaling 417 YPG in TO, 176 YPG rushing and 37.8 PPG. With the small sample of four games, SELA again skews the totals upward. Weber, Nova and the Griz are all much better teams than the Lions. The Dukes offense slows to 399 YPG TO and 30.7 PPG, still very good numbers against three good defenses.

How about the Ram led Bison offense? Against double the sample size of nine, we rambled for 411 YPG, with 255.6 coming from rushing. This produced 31.3 PPG. These nine defenses averaged only giving up 136 YPG in rushing to all other comers. So the Herd almost doubles that. Coupled with our stifling D, we produce a 17 point spread in our scoring against the best the FCS has to offer. Minus the SELA outlier, the Dukes only produce about a 12 point margin of victory. Again, I remind you two of the three didn’t have their starting QB.

You are probably tired of me bringing that up, so let’s lance that boil right now. In all my years of following college football, I have never seen a team face half its schedule with the opponent down their starting QB (for our analysis, I don’t count games against teams over 210 Sagarin. JMU played Moorhead State that is ranked 242. I don’t put any stock in our numbers versus Valparaiso at 246 in Sagarin).

The effect of six teams without their starting QB is big. It would be journalistic malpractice not to think it didn’t diminish those teams offensive output and pad JMU’s defensive stats. What if we faced UND sans Schuster (18-30-1 for 176 yards & 1 TD, backup was 9-17 for 70 yards for the year), UNI with May going out in the 1st Qtr (12-31-0 for 257 & 1 TD, backup 10-28-2 for 126 yards), how about Mo. State Bears without Jason Shelley (16-25-1 for 242 yards, backup 4-9-2 with 53 yards), next we get to face USD without Camp (21-27-1 for 196 yards & 2 TD’s, backup for year was 13-27-2 for 176 yards & 1 TD). Camp did go down in the 1st Qtr against the IL State Redbirds and the Yotes lost the game! Next, at lost QB number 5 is having Nick Baker sidelined for the rematch with Code Green (23-32-0 for 220 yards, backup Javon Williams was 3-10-0 with 67 yards. Javon was a wildcat QB, other backup was 2-8-1 for 9 yards with 1 TD). So last but not least at QB #6 down we have ETSU lose Tyler Riddell early in the game after losing Huzzie (top WR) after his first catch of the game. Tyler was 16-32-1 versus Code Green, his backup was 4-9-1 with 73 yards for the year. These backups total 45-108-8 for 574 yards and 2 TD’s for the year. That’s a completion rate of 41.7% and the equivalent of about 142.5 YPG (27 passes per game). The starters generated much greater production and fewer INT’s, that’s why they’re starters.

To be this far in my article shows you are interested in digging into the depths of the stats to find out what Vegas bases its stuff on. Why is the Herd at +125 to win Frisco, SDSU +200, JMU +400 and the Bobcats at +900? Remember Vegas wants you to lose and them to win. I want as good of analysis as I can give you based on real data (often over looked by other sports media because they don’t watch film or dig into the data except for being mesmerized by gaudy offensive stats). The last two polls had Sam Houston #1 & E Wash #4. JMU is #2 and our poor Bison #3.

What’s this have to do with JMU? I am glad you asked. In JMU’s second game of the season they faced the University of Maine Black Bears. Their starting QB, Joe Fagnano was 24-41-2 for 305 yards & 2 TD’s to start the season, which are nice QB numbers. Early against the Dukes (1st Qtr) he goes down with stats of 4-6-0. His replacement stinks up the place with a stat line of 8-22-1 for 88 yards in a second half runaway 55-7. Fagnano comes back for the last two games of the season and leads the Black Bears to a 35-10 victory over FBS U Mass. He was very efficient at 16-27-0 for 209 yards and two TD’s. He finished the season with a win against New Hampshire 33-20 with a great stat line of 21-34-0 for 249 yards and 2 TD’s again. Also in these two wins they could balance in a good run game (157 yards at 4.5 YPC and 167 yards with 3.7 YPC).

If Fagnano doesn’t go down, Maine probably wins at least one more game to make it to 7-4 for the season and with the FBS win gets into the playoffs. JMU didn’t face that team (I am not denigrating JMU here). They faced the baptism of fire first game exposure of a QB that went 121-238-4 in his eight games as the starter, a 50% passer instead of Fagnano, a 65-108-2 (60%) passer. I don’t think the Dukes pound Maine 55-7 with QB1 in there. I am not saying they win, but that the margins are different.

If it was one isolated game I wouldn’t stress it as a pertinent point, but when it is six of thirteen games IT IS A FACTOR!

Next JMU went on the road to face Weber State. Weber lost twice to JMU in the playoffs in 2017 and 2019. Weber has been a good defensive team (Big Sky standards) and a suspect offensive team. Going into 2021 they had a new QB, Bronson Barron, who was going to lead them deeper into the playoffs by providing balance to their solid defense. Weber loses to FBS/ranked Utah to open the season, but Bronson was 21-31-1 for 213 yards and 1 TD. Next they face cupcake Dixie State who is transitioning from DII and finished the year 1-10. Baron goes down with an injury better than halfway thru a 41-3 blowout.

Who is in town the next week, JMU? How nice to get another untested QB. Let’s keep this simple. Bronson comes back after three games. He goes 5-2 against FCS teams and Weber averages 35.9 PPG, under his replacement they were 1-2, scoring 25.3 PPG. During game with Dukes, rookie QB coughs up an 80 yard scoop and score. Any chance the upper class QB could have completed a scoring drive? Bronson stays healthy all year and Weber is in the playoffs.

Next gift loss at QB for JMU is Richmond. Let’s keep it simple again. Joe Mancuso, a dual threat QB goes down for three games (JMU is 2nd game in this stretch). Joe is 6-2 in his games, generates 30.5 PPG and averages over 200 YPG passing 35 YPG rushing at a 4.7 YPC. His replacement goes 0-3 and generates 6.7 PPG. JMU only beats the Spiders 19-3. JMU’s powerful run game produces 100 yards at 2.9 YPC. Don’t tell me Mancuso wouldn’t make a difference.

The next QB loss was at Delaware. Nolan Henderson, a quick twitch dual threat QB, who gave the Herd some fourth quarter fits in 2019, went down in the 4th game after a promising start. Replacement QB rating was 114.2 and Nolan’s was 143.08. Without Henderson at the Helm, the offense went totally in the toilet 318 YPG, rushing 123 YPG and scoring right at 20 PPG. The first two FCS games with Henderson under center generated 30.5 PPG, the rest of the season 17.7. That’s the team the Dukes played and beat 22-10.

Next on the QB carousel was William & Mary. Starter Darius Wilson, a 60% passer and near 400 yard rusher was out against JMU. His back up wasn’t a dual threat and only a 51% passer. W & M made a late push after falling behind 23-0 to bring it to 33-22. They are the only team the Duke’s defense faced that averaged over 200 YPG (205.5, 16th in FCS). They carved up JMU for 207 yards and 6.1 YPC.

Last, but not least, the Griz came to town last Friday and after a long catch, their top WR has to leave the game. Early in the 2nd Qtr, Cam Humphrey the starting QB goes down. In this situation the game plan for the starter is out. If you don’t believe how severe this is, let’s flip it. After his first catch, Antwa Wells goes out of the game. With JMU up 7-3, Cole Johnson goes out a few plays into the 2nd Qtr. Who wins?

Let me give the clearest data on what these QB’s going down meant statistically. Throwing out the Moorhead State game for the previously stated reasons, JMU’s season divides into two categories, teams that had their starting QB (6) and teams who lost their starting QB (6).

The six teams who were without their starting QB versus the Dukes ranked on average 19 teams stronger in their Sagarin ratings (146, which is the bar for playoff caliber versus 165), so the better teams that JMU faced in this sampling were without their best QB.

These better teams were significantly worse offensively than the lower ranked six teams. These offenses averaged 240.3 YPG Total Offense, 108.8 YPG rushing and only 12 PPG scoring. These are Code Green numbers.

The lesser teams with their starting QB’s generated 321.2 YPG TO and 19 PPG. Folks, that’s 81 YPG more in TO and 7 PPG more in scoring. Margins of points correlate to wins and losses. In 2016 we had the lowest margin of any of our championship run teams at 29.1 PPG scored and 16.6 PPG given up. We came into the playoffs dancing on thin ice (lower margins of victory) and fell thru. These six teams without their starting QB held JMU’s offense to 32.3 PPG versus 43.5 PPG. Better offense by these six teams would have kept JMU’s offense off the field more frequently, but not even factoring that in, just adding 7 PPG bringing the margin s to 32.3 to 19 PPG would most likely have put another loss on their record. It for sure would have diminished their defensive stats.

My last observation revolves around that JMU plays at one level at home and a much lower level on the road. Since they have to come to the Dome, Let’s look at their traveling credentials to date. At home they score (minus Moorhead) 45.9 PPG, amass 455.9 YPG in total offense, run the ball to the tune of 149.7 YPG and fling it around the stadium at 306.1 YPG passing. On the road these numbers shrink to 26.8 PPG scoring (19.1 PPG less!). Total offense drops to 384.6 YPG with the run game holding firm at 150 YPG. The Sagarin for these five road games is 161.

Defensively, four of the five road games had JMU facing teams without their starting QB. Still the margin of points was 26.8 to 16. Those margins don’t come from championship teams.

At home the Herd averages (minus Valpo) 422.9 YPG TO, while rushing for 260.9 YPG and scoring 35.7 PPG. Code Green is stellar in holding opposing teams to 274.4 YPG TO, 77.6 YPG rushing and only allowing 11.7 PPG. We are 37-1 in playoffs at home.

Before this becomes a book, let’s summarize. Why does Vegas have the four remaining teams as follows to win it all? +125 Bison, +200 Jacks, +400 JMU and +900 Bobcats? The overall stats show we are the most complete team. We faced seven top 50 rushing teams, no one ran for 200 yards. JMU faced two top 50 rushing teams. They lost to Nova and William & Mary without their starting QB nicked them for 207 yards at 6.1 YPC. Who’s better tested to stop the run?

JMU faced one good offense (team with more than 400 YPG TO, SELA). They give up 439 yards in spite of getting five turn over’s. Code Green faced five teams with more than 400 yards. Here are their combined offensive lines; 428.4 YPG TO, 181.4 YPG rushing and 32.8 PPG scoring. Our results versus these teams: 281 YPG TO, 100 YPG rushing and 13.4 PPG scoring. So who is better battle tested in stopping good offenses?

In the last five games with Cam at the helm we have yielded 5 sacks and 5 turn over’s. Code Green has generated 25 sacks and 12 take aways at home (minus Valpo).

Am I trying to say the Dukes are a bad team? No. I am just trying to get away from some of the hype that there isn’t any blemishes on their resume`. Playing half your games against teams without their starting QB is a big advantage and nullifies some of their defensive luster. Outcome? On to Frisco! Go Bison!

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