JMU Athletic Communications
HARRISONBURG — Cornell Urquhart doesn’t have to be reminded about just how far the James Madison defense has come.
The senior defensive tackle can recall when the unit was simply the other side of the ball.
In Urquhart’s first two seasons at JMU, the defense gave up at least 50 points on two occasions, at least 40 points more often, and even when the team won it was the offense that got credit.
“We weren’t a real physical defense and we weren’t disciplined,” Urquhart said.
But that notion began to change when Mike Houston took over as coach before the 2016 season. Houston wasn’t going to allow the defense to get left behind.
And even though it took Urquhart and the rest of the Dukes defenders time to learn coordinator Bob Trott’s system, they started to play like they understood the scheme when it mattered most in the latter half of 2016 and into the postseason.
Houston can point to when he saw the shift — Nov. 12, 2016 at Villanova.
The No. 11 Wildcats (4-2, 2-1 Colonial Athletic Association) visit Harrisonburg on Saturday along with ESPN’s “College GameDay” for a 3:30 p.m. showdown with the No. 1 Dukes (5-0, 2-0 CAA).
“You look back at that game and I think it was a big turning point, not only for us defensively, but for our program,” Houston said. “And that’s just because when we first got here, there wasn’t a lot of confidence on that side of the football, and they had not played well on that side of the ball for a couple of years.”
Quarterback Bryan Schor had suffered an injury in the first half on that cold, windy day in Philadelphia. It kept him out for the rest of the contest and forced JMU to insert then-true freshman Cole Johnson.
But with a freshman running its offense, JMU leaned on its defense, which limited Villanova to 239 total yards while intercepting Wildcats quarterback Zach Bednarczyk four times.
“All of a sudden you have a true freshman out there taking snaps with your starting quarterback on the sideline, and you’re playing against a very good a team,” Houston said. “Your defense really had to step up and your run game really had to step up, and they responded.
“I really felt like that was a hard-fought, tough win that eventually ended up clinching the conference championship. I really felt like that game brought our team closer together on a different level, and so that was a big turning point for our program.”
After that 20-7 win at Villanova, many JMU players — both on offense and defense — expressed the same sentiment as their coach.
It was the day JMU went from a club with the flashy offense to an intimidating team and well-rounded national-title contender.
The numbers back it up.
In the 10 games since, JMU hasn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 22 points in a contest.
This year, JMU’s defense is near the top of every major statistical category, nationally. The Dukes rank No. 3 in scoring defense (11.6 points per game), No. 3 in total defense (231.2 yards per game), No. 4 in passing defense (141.8 yards per game), No. 5 for passes intercepted (nine) and No. 14 for rushing defense (89.4 yards per game).
“I mean, whether it was our game that gave them a boost of confidence or not, I don’t know, but whatever it was they’ve picked up from there,” Villanova coach Mark Ferrante said. “They’re athletic. They run. They’re physical.
“[JMU senior defensive end Andrew] Ankrah seems like he’s been playing for a such a long time. The linebackers filling in for the graduation of [former JMU linebacker] Gage Steele seem to be doing a really good job, and they’ve got some experience back in the secondary with [senior safety Raven] Greene, so they’re good.”
Ankrah leads the team with six tackles for loss. Greene is second on the team with 24 tackles and two interceptions.
Urquhart, who has started each game this season, has registered 23 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
“Before Coach Houston and his staff got here, we were trying to play a finesse game,” Urquhart said. “And that is not the way the game is meant to be played. It’s meant to be played physical when you beat your opponent up every play, so I think that’s played a major factor with us.”
He added as good of a start as the defense has had this year, he thinks it can keep improving.
“Honestly, I don’t think we’ve played our best defensive performance yet,” he said, before being asked what an ideal performance is, “I would say a complete shutout with not letting the opposing offense past the 50, holding them under 100 yards rushing and with about 150 yards of total offense.”