The time for talking about football is just about over- the time for playing is right around the corner. Saturday is the day the East Carolina Pirates kick off their 2017 season and put everything else behind them with a opening matchup against James Madison University.
All offseason, people have talked nonstop about the James Madison team, who won the national championship in the Football Championship Subdivision after a 14-1 record last season. So much talk that even websites like oddshark.com and Bovada,reputable sites that take bets for games, have the Dukes favored to win in their trip to Greenville despite being in a lower conference. But is that commendation for JMU or condemnation on ECU?
The No.1 ranked FCS team will enter Dowdy-Ficklen stadium with the same quarterback that led the Dukes to seven wins over FCS ranked teams last season, and brought a championship back to Harrisonburg, Virginia. Bryon Schor, the defending Colonial Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year and 2016-17 James Madison Athletics Male Athlete of the Year, enters his senior season atop almost every FCS award list and posses the potential to beat the Pirates through the air. The same year, he threw for 3,002 yards, and excelled on the ground, where he rushed for 569 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“He’s a better quarterback outside the tackles, he’s phenomenal outside the tackles,” ECU defensive backs coach Brandon Lynch said. “With throwing the ball deep, his receivers do a great job coming back and making plays for him. We’re going to have our hands full.”
Even though the Dukes are experienced at the quarterback position, it doesn't offset their struggles playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which the Pirates are a part of. Despite going 4-0 in games decided by 10 points or fewer last season, the Dukes looked overwhelmed in their only FBS game, a loss to North Carolina, getting run out of Chapel Hill 56-27. In total, Saturday marks JMU’s 26th contest against a member of the FBS and in such games, the Dukes hold a 5-20 record. More recently, JMU has played a FBS team in each of the past 10 seasons, going 2-8 in that span.
The Dukes’ most considerable challenge this year won't be any opponent on the schedule, but instead replacing their five leading receivers, three lineman, two leading tacklers and leading rusher. While JMU has a deep depth chart, playing inexperienced players will bode well for the Pirates on Saturday, who return plenty of starters. Now, Mike Houston, who is in his second year as the head coach at James Madison, has to restore this team unlike coaching the veteran team he has last year. Houston did recruit the predecessor to tailback Khalid Abdullah last season however, convincing Marcus Marshall to transfer from Georgia Tech after leading the Yellow Jackets in rushing the past two seasons. Expect JMU to come out looking to score enough points to walk out of Greenville with a win.
“They’re a prolific offense,” Kenwick Thompson, ECU’s defensive coordinator, said. “They’re used to scoring points. They’re used to winning. There’s a lot of expectations over there, so they do a good job at (winning).”
While JMU is fighting to replace some key pieces, the defensive backs who anchor their 4-2-5 defense are all returning with more experience under their belt. Led by Raven Greene, who had six interceptions last season, which was tied-most in the FCS, the Dukes will feature two seniors and two juniors in their defensive backfield. Something that should strike fear in the hearts of Pirates' fans after they threw 12 interceptions in 2016.
This Saturday’s forecast, which beyond just some rain, is calling for a lot of points between the Pirates and the Dukes. Both teams have a lot to prove this season, with ECU and Montgomery looking to bounce back after a disappointing 2016 and JMU and Houston trying to prove things last season weren’t just a fluke. One thing is for sure, Saturday’s game is going to reveal a lot about where both programs are headed.