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HARRISONBURG — The 2016 season couldn’t have ended any differently for James Madison and East Carolina.
The Dukes celebrated with euphoric bliss under a Texas sunset after winning the FCS national title for the second time in school history. JMU dethroned a five-time reigning champion along the way.
FBS East Carolina lost four straight games by at least three touchdowns as its season came to a close in a 27-point defeat at Temple.
Today, the two sides clash in the 2017 season opener as No. 1 JMU travels to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for a 6 p.m. kickoff at East Carolina.
“This team has done nothing this year,” said second-year JMU coach Mike Houston, whose team boasts the nation’s longest active winning streak in Division I entering today’s contest. “We have not played a game. We have not won a game and this is not last year’s team.
“So it’ll be exciting to get out there and see what we’re going to be.”
East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery, also in his second season, said the Pirates have been waiting for the opportunity to rid themselves of last year’s 3-9 mark.
“Since we left Philadelphia and the way we felt in our stomachs when we left the field at Temple, we have been looking forward to this moment,” Montgomery said.
JMU returns more than it lost from last season’s championship roster, including quarterback Bryan Schor.
Schor was the CAA Offensive Player of the Year last year and is the league’s preseason Offensive Player of Year entering his senior season. He completed an FCS best 73 percent of his throws a year ago while tossing for 3,002 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also ran for 569 yards and 10 scores.
East Carolina’s top priority is slowing down Schor.
“The best player on their team is the quarterback, there’s no question about it,” Montgomery said. “Schor is just an all-around great player with his ability in the run game, to pull it and go get yards, but also his run-action ability when he’s throwing. He stays in his fakes a little longer because of how quick his release is. We’ve got a huge, huge challenge with him.”
ECU safety Tim Irvin, an Auburn transfer, said the Pirates have studied Schor’s run-pass option throughout the summer.
“You just have to be disciplined in your eyes and fundamentals,” Irvin said. “You have to be focused every play and keep your eyes locked in because if you mess around and your eyes aren’t in the right spot, you can miss your assignment.”
Irvin is one of a few transfers that will play for the first time in an ECU uniform along with fellow safety Korrin Wiggins (Clemson), running back Tyshon Dye (Clemson) and defensive tackle Tyree Owens (West Virginia).
JMU has five FBS transfers — running back Marcus Marshall (Georgia Tech), wide receiver David Eldridge (Virginia), defensive end Ron’Dell Carter (Rutgers), linebacker Gus Little (Maryland) and linebacker Landan Word (Virginia) — on its two-deep. All are making JMU debuts.
“I’m just excited,” Marshall said. “I’ve been excited since camp started and it’s finally here.”
Marshall, along with fifth-year senior running back Cardon Johnson — who is healthy and returns from an Achilles injury suffered late last season — should get the majority of touches out of the Madison backfield. Junior Trai Sharp and senior Taylor Woods could also see action at the position.
The running back spot is the one where JMU feels it is as deep as East Carolina. JMU’s biggest concern entering the game is trying to combat its depth deficiency.
East Carolina has 85 scholarship players. JMU has 63 scholarship players.
“You look at the resources that they at their disposal, just the scholarships alone,” Houston said. “That gives them an extra layer of depth.
“I saw something the other day that said they have 14 defensive linemen that they’re prepared to play. I mean I don’t have 14 D-linemen on the roster, let alone 14 that can play, so you could see [depth] in the second half become a factor. You hope it’s not.
“Our players trained very hard this summer with their conditioning and I think that was something that was probably a strength last year of this ball club, and we do have a lot of older guys coming back, so we hope it doesn’t end up being a factor, but it could be.”