The James Madison University football team leads the Atlantic 10 Conference in one team statistical category, it has the conference leader in just three individual categories and it is averaging only 27 1/2 minutes of possession time per game. Last week, its starting quarterback couldn't play because of an injury, and his replacement was a freshman walk-on who isn't even listed in the JMU media guide and had been playing safety until early October.
The Dukes' coach is in his first season as a head coach at any level. And in what has become a typical postgame comment from opposing coaches, when the Dukes defeated Villanova, 23-20, earlier this season, Villanova's Andy Talley said, "It was probably the worst offensive performance since I've been at Villanova."
It doesn't seem to add up, but James Madison is 6-1 (6-0 in the Atlantic 10) and ranked 10th in Division I-AA. Its only loss was a 47-0, season-opening rout at Virginia Tech, a result that doesn't seem nearly as bad now that the Hokies are ranked third in the nation and recently blasted Syracuse, 62-0.
"No one ever says we played well," said Coach Mickey Matthews, who took over when Alex Wood became an assistant coach for the Minnesota Vikings and inherited a team that went 3-8 last season and had been 5-13 since October 1997. "All I ever hear when we beat someone was how bad they played. But we're [6-1]."
Several of the Dukes' key players have transfered from Division I-A programs, including senior tailback Curtis Keaton, who began his career at West Virginia and this season has rushed for 1,025 yards on 168 carries and scored a conference-leading 14 touchdowns. But they also are a team that has committed a conference-low nine turnovers (just two in the past 5 1/2 games), resulting in a plus-1.57 per game turnover rating that is tied for fourth in Division I-AA.
They rarely win comfortably, and for all they have achieved so far this season, they still could not only fail to win the conference championship, but could fail to make the 16-team Division I-AA playoffs. They host 16th-ranked South Florida Saturday, and after their last two conference games (the Atlantic 10 winner gets an automatic playoff berth), they finish with a game at ninth-ranked Hofstra.
But as Matthews said: "We tell our guys, 'If you think you can do it, you're correct. If you think you can't do it, you're also correct.' "
This past Saturday, injuries forced the Dukes to play without their best wide receiver, junior Earnest Payton (Douglass High), and one of their top tacklers, safety Ron Atkins. Still, they enjoyed a relatively easy 48-14 victory over Connecticut. Keaton had his second consecutive 200-yard rushing game and scored five touchdowns, but the big story was scrambling freshman quarterback Mike Connelly. Starting in place of Charles Berry, a junior transfer from North Carolina State, Connelly ran for 120 yards and passed for 71.
Connelly, who will start again this week, joined the Dukes during the preseason as an invited walk-on from Shawnee High in Medford, N.J. He began as a quarterback, but quickly was moved to safety, then switched back to quarterback the week prior to JMU's Oct. 16 game against William & Mary.
Before the victory over Connecticut, the Dukes' first five wins were all relatively close games. They never were in complete control offensively in any game (their third-down conversion rate is an anemic 26.5 percent, and had been 22 percent through six games) and they mainly relied on their defense to make big plays. JMU's defense has faced more than 80 snaps per game, with Delaware running 96 and Connecticut 93.
However, the Dukes keep defiantly bucking conventional wisdom. They defeated Delaware, 21-7, despite gaining 172 yards and making only eight first downs; JMU has had fewer yards in a victory just once in the program's 27-year history.
"We talk to our players constantly about being awake on defense," defensive coordinator Dick Hopkins said. "We talk to them about turnovers because right now, that's been the big difference. We feel if we can get three takeaways a game, then we're on track to help our offense."
JMU has forced 20 turnovers in seven games. Some helped fuel fourth-quarter comebacks against Villanova and New Hampshire. Other big plays have been turned in by 6-foot-1, 235-pound defensive end Chris Morant (nine sacks), and a trio of transfers--linebackers Mike Luckie (Georgia) and Derick Pack (West Virginia) and Atkins (Los Angeles Valley Community College)--who have combined for 203 tackles.
But Matthews said that even at 6-1, his team can--and will--do more.
"We feel our best football is ahead of us," he said. "We're happy now, but we're far from satisfied."