By Sam Partridge
CAA Today Columnist
College Sporting News
The CAA Today world headquarters is located in Chatham, NJ and we have now seen three historic storms in the space of two months. After losing power for the second time in that stretch, this time for almost five days, I am wondering if we are looking at a new normal in terms of weather.
I don’t propose to offer an opinion on climate change, but I got the answer to the question, ‘If a tree falls across your driveway and you’re not there to see it, does it take down your power lines?’
One place where they are used to the New Normal is in the CAA offices. For the better part of two decades, the Yankee/A-10/CAA football conference has been a carousel of comings and goings, with teams rising and falling in the league. There has been some consistency with teams like Delaware, but for the most part the constant has been change.
This season, the new normal has been a theme for the league, with some teams finding themselves in unusual positions in the standings and others having to deal with changes in mid-season. It’s been interesting to watch teams deal with these situations and those that can manage the challenges best will emerge from the CAA title chase and head to the playoffs.
LAST WEEK’S GAMES
James Madison at Old Dominion
No game better summed up the upheaval in the CAA this year than the "Oyster Bowl" matchup between JMU and ODU. It was the first ever meeting between the schools but if this game is any indication, it should be an entertaining rivalry for years to come.
Every experience is new for ODU in their first CAA season, while these games are old hat for coach Mickey Matthews. It was colder than normal in Norfolk for a late October Saturday, but Foreman Field missed out on the ugly weather that impacted much of the Northeast. Not hampered by the elements, both teams came out and moved the ball in a surprisingly prolific first half.
Both teams are being led with backup quarterbacks in Taylor Heinicke and Jace Edwards, with Heinicke figuring to have the edge in this one. Bearing that out, the Monarchs came out on their first possession and took a 7-0 lead, with the freshman signal-caller hitting Larry Pinkard from 17 yards out. However, the Dukes had clearly worked on the passing game during their bye week and responded convincingly behind Edwards. After a field goal cut the score to 7-3, the Dukes took the lead back on their next possession as Dae'Quan Scott took it in from 12 yards out as time expired to end the first quarter.
Heinicke and the Monarchs responded and took the lead right back as Pinkard hauled in his second touchdown reception of the half, this time from 23 yards, to take a 14-10 lead with 12:57 left. Again, though, the Dukes responded and Scott rumbled in from 5 yards out to go back up 17-14. After Cameron Starke hit from 23 yards in the last minute to close out the scoring, JMU took a 20-14 lead to the half.
The most striking stat from the half was the performance of Edwards for the Dukes. He was 11-12 for 186 yards, which was a stunning performance for a player who hadn’t been asked to do much in his first few weeks at the helm. The problem for Mickey Matthews was that his offensive line was being hit with injuries and it was going to be a depleted unit that went out for the second half against a solid Old Dominion front seven.
New normals all around.
The second half played out much differently as the defenses reasserted themselves and neither team could get into the end zone. Unfortunately for JMU, they couldn’t get any points out of kicker Starke either. The Monarchs, on the other hand, rode the right food of Jarod Brown, first from 19 yards out to cut the lead to 20-17 and then later from 40 yards to even the score at 20-20. When he added his third field goal of the half from 25 yards out with just over 12 minutes to play, it gave the home squad a 23-20 lead that ended up being the final margin.
All in all, it was a clean, well-played game with no turnovers and ultimately a pretty even stat line. However, the difference were the injuries to the JMU offensive line and the performance against the run of the ODU defense, holding JMU to 2.7 yards per carry on 38 attempts. After his sparkling first half, Edwards was 6-14 for 53 yards in the second session and not surprisingly, the Dukes had little offensive success after the break.
The win gives the Monarchs a 7-2 overall mark, 5-2 in conference and sets them up nicely with two more rivalry games coming up against Richmond and William & Mary. The Dukes, however, took their third loss and will need to regroup quickly with a trip to New Hampshire next up on the schedule.
Delaware at Towson
No team is dealing with a new normal more so than Towson. The perennial CAA doormat has been the surprise of the season and heading into last week had been riding a streak of last-minute victories that gave the season a feeling of destiny.
On the opposite sideline, the Blue Hens came in stumbling, still searching for an identity that has been lacking all year after the stunning loss in last season’s FCS championship game and the departure of star quarterback Pat Devlin. But Towson had never been in this situation before as a solid favorite against a CAA stalwart.
Could the upstarts from outside of Baltimore hold off the old guard? That’s why they play the games.
The bulk of the storm that slammed the northeast had passed, but the game started in light snow and temperatures in the high-30s.The conditions did not seem to slow the home team, though, as they jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead as Terrance West scampered 46 yards to finish off Towson’s first possession. After an interception, DJ Stoven followed up eight minutes later with a field goal from 28 yards, and it looked like the Blue Hens might get left behind early.
However, proud programs never go down early and Delaware took control for the rest of the first half. Freshman Michael Johnson took the ensuing kickoff and sped 80 yards, setting the Blue Hens up deep in Towson territory. This would quickly become a theme of the game, as Delaware had five kick returns for 240 total yards. A quick 11-yard touchdown drive was punctuated by Tim Donnelly scoring from four yards out. 10-7 Towson.
Moments later, West fumbled and the Blue Hens recovered at their own 39. Six quick plays later, Pierce rumbled in from 23 yards for his first touchdown of the night to give Delaware a 14-10 lead. Towson came right back, however, moving 73 yards in 13 plays, culminating in West’s second touchdown run, this from seven yards. Unfortunately for the Tigers, a bad snap cost them the conversion and the score stayed 16-14.
Amazingly, the Tigers were still celebrating when the Blue Hens took the lead back, as Travis Hawkins took the kickoff back 86 yards for a touchdown. After a successful two-point try, the Delaware lead was 22-14. When Pierce scored from 13 yard with just over two minutes left in the half, the Blue Hens completed a 29-6 run and looked comfortable.
Not to be outdone, the Tigers gave Delaware a taste of their own medicine, with Derrick Joseph taking the kickoff back 47 yards. Moving deep into Delaware territory, Towson had fourth-and-one at the eight and coach Rob Ambrose made the call to go for it. Handing the ball to the freshman sensation made sense, and West ran around the left end a for his third touchdown, cutting the Tigers deficit 29-23 with 26 seconds left in the half.
Midway through the fourth quarter, West struck for his fourth touchdown, this time from 14 yards to give the Tigers the lead back at 30-29. The freshman finished his night with 155 yards on 27 carries and his second four touchdown game of the season.
Not to be outdone, Andrew Pierce, last year’s CAA Rookie of the Year, refused to go down quietly, leading the Blue Hens back down the field. The 65-yard drive ended with Pierce scoring for the third time from five yards to give Delaware a 35-30 lead with 2:05 left in the third after a failed two-point conversion. Pierce finished with a season-high 158 yards on 30 carries to go with the three scoring runs, moving into sixth place on the Delaware all-time rushing list.
"I really wasn’t thinking about how many times I was carrying the ball during the game," said Pierce. "I just wanted to win for the team. We knew we could move the ball today and we had a good game plan coming in. We have a good offensive line, they opened the holes, and I got through them."
The Delaware defense took over the rest of the way, first intercepting Towson quarterback Grant Enders at the Delaware 21 with 11:16 left. After trading possessions, linebacker Paul Worrilow picked off Enders again at the Towson 43 with under 2:32 remaining. Enders finished 15 of 30 for 159 yards and also picked up 72 yards on the ground.
Delaware picked up a first down, but couldn’t put the game away and tried a 28 yard field goal with less than a minute left. The kick was blocked with 52 seconds left, giving the Tigers a final chance. Enders completed a couple of passes to move to the Delaware 43 but a bad snap, a spike and an incompletion led to fourth down and one final play from the Delaware 49. Enders rolled right and launched a throw into the end zone but it was broken up by a cluster of Blue Hens and triggered an eruption on the Delaware sideline.
"We just needed a win, and more importantly a win over a very good team," said Delaware head coach?K.C. Keeler. "Rob Ambrose will get my vote for Coach of the Year. Their offensive line is outstanding and they just keep coming at you. Our mental challenge after two straight losses was just to man-up and not put our heads down and not let bad plays bother us. We have been pressing, so our mantra was to just go play and we did that."
Towson lost to Delaware for the fifth straight time while losing its first home game. The Hens gained 201 of their 257 total yards on the ground and overcame two turnovers.
Towson amassed 388 total yards but the Tigers were hurt by three turnovers, most notably the two interceptions in the final quarter.
"Give a lot of credit to K.C. Keeler and his staff," Towson Coach Rob Ambrose said. "They did a great job preparing for us. Our youth definitely showed its face tonight. We have to learn from it and regroup really fast because Maine is for real. We just talked in the locker room about challenges," added Ambrose. "We really haven’t had to deal with something like this. We will find our mistakes and we will fix them."
MY WEEK 9 TOP 25
1: North Dakota State Bison
2: Montana State Bobcats
3: Maine Black Bears
4: Sam Houston State
5: Appalachian State
6: Northern Iowa Panthers
7: Georgia Southern Eagles
8: Montana Grizzlies
9: New Hampshire Wildcats
10: Lehigh Mountain Hawks
11: Wofford Terriers
12: Old Dominion Monarchs
13: Towson Tigers
14: James Madison Dukes
15: Liberty Flames
16: Illinois State Redbirds
17: Indiana State Sycamores
18: Harvard Crimson
19: Furman Paladins
20: Brown Bears
21: Jacksonville State Gamecocks
22: Massachusetts Minutemen
23: Central Arkansas Bears
24: Eastern Kentucky Colonels
25: Georgetown Hoyas
CURRENT CAA STANDINGS
Maine 5-0 7-1
New Hampshire 4-1 6-2
Towson 4-1 6-2
Old Dominion 4-2 7-2
James Madison 3-2 5-3
Massachusetts 3-2 5-3
Delaware 3-3 5-4
William & Mary 2-3 4-4
Rhode Island 1-4 2-6
Richmond 0-5 3-5
Villanova 0-6 1-8
As UNH head coach Sean McDonnell said on the coaches call this week, the goal is to get to 8 wins, because CAA teams are in pretty good shape at that point.
Using that as a benchmark, Maine and Old Dominion are in the best position. However, Maine has a much tougher schedule with games remaining against Towson, UMass and New Hampshire.
One win gets Maine in the playoffs, two gets them a CAA title and a home game and a sweep gets them a seed.
ODU has only Richmond and William & Mary left to play and one win should get them in the playoffs.
New Hampshire sits in good shape at 6-2 but with remaining games against JMU, Towson and Maine, the Wildcats are going to have to fight their way to a playoff berth, although the non-conference win over Lehigh gives them a leg up if they finish 7-4.
Towson is also in pretty good shape at 6-2, but with back-to-back games coming up against Maine and UNH, the Tigers could very well head to Rhode Island the final Saturday of the season needing a win to get into the playoffs.
JMU has UNH, URI and UMass left to play and might need to win all three but finishing 7-4 with a good non-conference win over Liberty could still get the Dukes a long look from the selection committee.
Delaware and William & Mary are still hanging onto hope but need some losses from contenders in the CAA and among the other conferences in FCS.
THIS WEEK’S GAMES
(Delaware is idle)
Villanova at UMass
Massachusetts has been flying under the radar somewhat this season since they won’t be in the CAA next season and aren’t playoff eligible, but they have quietly put together a solid campaign. The road win over Delaware was an eye-opener and they played well enough to beat New Hampshire in the Colonial Clash. Currently at 5-3, they should be able to get a sixth win over a struggling Villanova team.
As I’ve said before, I’ll keep picking against Villanova as long as Andy Talley doesn’t think they’re ready to win. The Wildcats head coach sounded a little more upbeat on this week’s CAA coaches call, but still not enough to think they can beat the Minutemen. The Villanova offense was markedly better against Maine, but it’s tough to get a good read on anything in a snowstorm.
It’s the same story every week, but the home team will ride Jonathan Hernandez and the arm of Kellen Pagel, hopefully running up an early lead and salting the game away with a solid defense and running game.
Bay Staters 27, Main Liners 17
William & Mary at Rhode Island
William & Mary used their bye week to heal up some veterans and get reps for newcomers, but they also went pretty hard against each other in practice, according to coach Jimmye Laycock. They need to be tough especially given the muddled quarterback situation in Williamsburg. With another injury in the Towson game, Laycock will have to shuffle signal-callers again, and it’s tough to do that heading into a CAA road game, even one in Kingston, RI. The Tribe is 15-7 coming off a bye and 12-2 against URI, but this team comes in still searching for consistency. Expect Jonathan Grimes right, Grimes left and passes to Grimes out of the backfield.
Three weeks ago, I would have given the Tribe a solid edge, but the Rams have shown new life with Robbie Bentsen at quarterback and almost took down the New Hampshire on the road last weekend. Given the Tribe’s struggles scoring points this year, a productive offense from the home team could be enough to pull out a mild upset.
I think it’s almost a toss-up, but given the Tribe’s continuing struggles at quarterback, I think Rhode Island pulls out a victory at home.
Horns 24, Grimey Tribe 23
Richmond at Old Dominion
It’s quickly turning into a lost season in the capital city of Virginia. The Spiders looked to be dealing nicely with the coaching change right before the season as they beat Duke and rolled to a 3-0 non-conference record, but it has been downhill since then as a combination of suspect defense and mistakes on offense have led to a winless CAA campaign to date.
On the other side, the Monarchs have flourished in their first CAA season. With one Virginia rival in JMU vanquished, Old Dominion is looking to beat Richmond and William & Mary to complete a sweep of state foes and finish with a 9-2 record. Taylor Heinicke has been cooly efficient since taking the reins earlier in the season and the Monarch defense continues to grow into a potentially dominant unit.
Given the momentum rolling through Norfolk, it’s hard to see Aaron Corp and Tre Gray rolling down Route 64 and coming home with an upset, especially given the Spiders recent form. Monarchs get their eighth win at home in the first meeting between the two schools.
Momentum Monarchs 34, Searching Spiders 20
James Madison at New Hampshire
While Towson at Maine is the biggest game of the week with the conference lead on the line, JMU at UNH could be the most critical in terms of two teams fighting for the playoffs. The Dukes come in at 5-3 but without a quality conference win and won’t get another chance at one after this week. The Wildcats, as I mentioned earlier, sit at 6-2 but have the toughest closing stretch of any CAA contender and could see things start to slip away with a home loss.
New Hampshire is the epitome of consistency in recent years and they’re used to big games in November, but they’ve got the same weakness as in past years, i.e. defense. As evidenced again last week against Rhode Island, the Wildcats will give up points, but usually they manage to outscore the opponent. James Madison is an interesting matchup for the Wildcats, given the Dukes normally punishing running game but inconsistent passing game with backup Jace Edwards. On the flip side, the Dukes have shown to be susceptible in the secondary if they can’t get pressure.
New Hampshire has faced an incredibly favorable CAA schedule thus far, missing Delaware and ODU while playing all of the weaker teams in the conference. The last three weeks will be a test, starting with a physical Dukes squad. I think the visitors will shake off last week’s disappointment and give a good effort in a must-win game on the road. The running game will move the ball and Edwards will take advantage of the Wildcats secondary. However, I still think the home team will ultimately put enough points on the board to get a win. JMU is just banged up enough to not be able to play its best game and New Hampshire will get its seventh win before facing Towson and Maine to close the season.
Closing Cats 27, Dinged Dukes 24
GAME OF THE WEEK
Towson at Maine
Two teams dealing with unaccustomed situations face off in Orono, ME with the CAA lead on the line. Towson stumbled in their first taste of being a late-season favorite against Delaware last week and will try to rebound against a Maine team in the midst of a tremendous season. Coach Jack Cosgrove has plenty of playoff experience, but he’s never faced a situation where he had a top 10 team and a potential top seed in the FCS playoffs in the offing. This current Maine team has plenty of veteran leadership supplemented with young talent like Pushaun Brown and this should be an entertaining matchup of two of the most balanced yet explosive teams in the conference.
Both squads have shown the ability to grind out long time-consuming drives, but have the ability to quick-strike for big plays as well. Neither defense has particularly distinguished itself, but the Black Bears have at least shown the ability to shut teams down when needed in road victories at Maine and Richmond.
All in all, I think Maine is a slightly better team as well as having the home field edge this Saturday. I expect a typical, back-and-forth CAA slugfest, but in the end the opportunistic Maine team will make a few more plays, either on special teams or defense, to make the difference. Maine stays unbeaten in the league and notches the important eighth win.
Lobster Lovers 34, Crab Cravers 28
As usual, enjoy the games this weekend and please feel free to offer any suggestions, scouting reports, thoughts, queries, etc. to CAAtoday@yahoo.com.