HARRISONBURG — James Madison and Maine can’t really hide much from each other.
Both teams share similar identities on offense and defense as the Black Bears visit a sold out Bridgeforth Stadium today at 1:30 p.m. for the top-ranked Dukes’ Colonial Athletic Association opener.
“This is definitely a linebacker’s game,” JMU sophomore inside linebacker Gus Little said. “They run the ball a lot. They have a lot of pride in their running back.”
Maine sophomore running back Josh Mack is fourth nationally and leads the CAA with 358 rushing yards after his 255-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 60-12 Week 2 win against Bryant.
The Black Bears (1-1, 0-1 CAA) were idle last week, but are hoping to continue moving the ball on the ground like they did a few Saturdays ago.
One obstacle in the way is JMU’s (3-0) stingy rushing defense. The Dukes have held their last four opponents, dating back to the 2016 FCS national championship game, to fewer than 100 yards rushing.
Last week, in its 75-14 thumping of Norfolk State, JMU limited the Spartans to 43.
“We’re going to have to be able to run the ball and put ourselves in more situations in third downs where we can be successful,” Maine coach Joe Harasymiak said. “We have a redshirt freshman quarterback [Chris Ferguson], and so getting the ball into his hands in opportunistic situations where he doesn’t have to do to much will be key.
“We have to run the ball early and effectively to set him up.”
When JMU won 31-20 at Maine last year, Mack wasn’t a factor in the game.
Then a freshman, Mack had two carries for negative-1 yard. This week, Harasymiak said Mack was suspended for a violation of team rules in the game prior to JMU’s visit last fall.
The second-year Black Bears coach said Mack needed time to mature, which didn’t occur until a few weeks after the showdown between the two squads.
“I didn’t play much because of little mistakes I made as a freshman,” Mack said. “After that game, what changed was me just growing up more as a player and as a person.
“Then coach [Harasymiak] trusted me as the season went on and into this year.”
In his last seven games, Mack rushed for at least 100 yards four times.
Maine has four of five starters from last year’s offensive line back this season.
“It solidifies them more. Now they have a guy,” JMU coach Mike Houston said of Mack. “Last year they had kind of a committee, and then Mack emerged midseason.
“He fits them and he’s a big, strong runner. He can get behind that big offensive line and they get those tight ends and fullbacks in there, too. He does a good job of being patient in finding holes and running behind his pads, so he’ll be a load to bring down.”
JMU’s defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown in the past two weeks, and this season, opposing rushers are averaging only 1.8 yards per carry.
Little, a Maryland transfer, has started the first three games alongside senior Kyre Hawkins at inside linebacker. Hawkins leads the team with 21 total tackles and Little has 12, but the former Terrapin said it has taken more than just reliable play at linebacker for the defense to be as dominant as it has in the first month of the season.
“We’ve done our job,” Little said. “As long as everybody does their job and nobody tries to make every play on every down. It’s about gap integrity, having good eyes in seeing the gap-scheme runs, seeing the zone and getting back against the pass.
“But it really helps to have a defensive line that can put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and then the secondary that we have that straps up the receivers and makes the quarterback hold onto the ball a little longer.”
When JMU is on offense, it is going to run the ball. As a team, JMU ranks third nationally for rushing, averaging 334.7 yards per game. Maine hasn’t given up a rushing touchdown yet.
However, today will be the first time this season the Dukes play without Cardon Johnson, who started the first three games at the position. Johnson suffered a season-ending injury in the second quarter last week against Norfolk State, so JMU will use senior Taylor Woods, junior Marcus Marshall and junior Trai Sharp in Johnson’s absence.
Sharp will play today after spending most of the week in North Carolina with his family after the death of his father, David, last Saturday.
“We’ll still roll those backs,” JMU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said. “Since Trai’s been home, how much he plays, I don’t know.
“The rotation will be Marcus — he’ll get a little more of the load — but then Taylor Woods will get a lot of it, too. But we’ll see how Trai is.”
When it separated from Maine in the fourth quarter last year, JMU used a 52-yard touchdown run from Johnson to go ahead by the 31-20 score it would win by.
Maine led at halftime and was ahead entering the final quarter of that contest.
“I think you’ll see the exact same kind of game this year,” Houston said. “Because they’re a very talented football team and they play extremely hard. They’re very physical and their philosophy reminds me a lot of what we want to be.”
JMU leads the all-time series over Maine 12-5. The Dukes also hold the nation’s longest active winning streak in Division I at 15 straight wins.