While James Madison didn't receive the same level of fanfare for upsetting Virginia Tech last season that Appalachian State garnered when knocking off Michigan at Ann Arbor in 2007, the Dukes may have actually pulled a more robust rabbit out of their hat. The Wolverines finished that season with a 9-4 record and a Capital One Bowl appearance. The Hokies, on the other hand, posted an 11-3 record in 2010 and won the ACC Championship to earn a trip to Miami for the Orange Bowl.
Granted, most observers assumed Virginia Tech would coast to victory after building an early 10-0 and then kicking a field goal to secure a 16-7 margin with less than 20 minutes to play. But quarterback Drew Dudzik orchestrated a pair of 60-plus yard touchdown drives on the Dukes' next two possessions and their stifling defense forced an interception, a fumble and a turnover on downs on Virginia Tech's final three series to secure the improbable in-state upset.
James Madison would lose five of its next seven games, however, finishing the 2010 season with a 6-5 record despite a defense that ranked third in scoring (14.7 ppg) and eighth overall (286.9 ypg) in FCS play. That defense is the primary reason head coach Mickey Matthews's 2011 squad was voted second in the preseason Colonial Athletic Association poll and enters the season ranked No. 16 in the FCS Coaches Poll. The Dukes return 38 letter winners, including 10 starters on the defensive side of the ball and seven on offense.
"You don't have to mention it to them. They know." – UNC head coach Everett Withers when asked if he's reminded his team about the Dukes' upset over Virginia Tech.
"They beat Virginia Tech last year and we're very aware of that. We're not going to take them lightly at all. They're a great team." – UNC quarterback Bryn Renner
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Bryn Renner vs. JMU's Defense
After two years of waiting behind UNC record-setting quarterback T.J. Yates, Renner will finally get his chance to trot out onto the Kenan Stadium field as the starter against James Madison. The red-shirt sophomore (career: 1-of-2 passing, 14 yards) has earned a reputation in practice for being a gunslinger with a strong arm and a tendency to throw the ball into tights spots, but part of his development over the offseason has been to limit his mistakes.
"His is arm is just so good," UNC senior safety Matt Merletti said. "What's impressing me more and more is that he's getting better at making decisions. In the past, he was trying to fit balls in there [where] he really shouldn't have been trying to do that, so it's good to see him making good decisions and not trying to force a ball anywhere."
A solid offensive line and All-ACC caliber options at running back (Ryan Houston) and wide receiver (Dwight Jones) will help ease the pressure on Renner to be flawless in his opening showcase. That will prove to be beneficial against one of the top defenses in the FBS subdivision.
Linebackers Pat Williams (101 tkls, 11.0 TFL) and Stephon Robertson (90 tkls, 9.5 TFL) headline an aggressive 4-3 defensive scheme that ranked 12th in pass defense (160.5 ypg) and 22nd in pass defense efficiency (110.77) in 2010.
"They're very fast and very physical," Renner said. "… I know that they're a very good defense. In all of the film I've watched, they're very athletic [and] very quick."
The Dukes are still searching for a legitimate pass rusher. Defensive ends D.J. Bryant and Lamar Middleton led James Madison with 2.5 sacks each last season, which helps to explain the team's No. 85 national ranking in sacks (1.36 per game).
JMU's Offense vs. UNC's Defense
There's one thing you may not have known about James Madison's upset over the Hokies last September – the Dukes were without their starting quarterback, 2009 CAA Rookie of the Year Justin Thorpe. The red-shirt junior completed 82-of-145 passes for 1,260 yards and six touchdowns in addition to 654 yards and five scores on the ground as a freshman, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener last year against Morehead State.
Thorpe won or shared CAA Player of the Week honors four times in '09, but his head coach isn't quite ready to anoint him as the next great JMU quarterback.
"The last two years we've had the best football teams we've ever had at James Madison," Matthews told the Sports Network last week. "We just have been so bad on offense, and particularly bad at quarterback. We have had very poor quarterback play; we've turned a 9-2 football team into a 6-5 team."
Even so, Thorpe appears to be a crucial piece in solving his program's offensive woes – the Dukes finished 98th nationally in total offense (293.5 ypg) and 101st in scoring offense (17.7 ppg) in 2010. James Madison lost leading rusher Jamal Sullivan (716 yards, 5 TD) to graduation, but red-shirt sophomore tailback Dae'Quan Scott (pictured at right) earned third-team All-CAA honors for his punt return skills and will be counted on to carry the workload in the offensive backfield.
"They've got a talented quarterback in Justin Thorpe," Withers said. "Dae'Quan Scott – he's a talent. You don't know where he's going to line up. He could be at tailback, he could be at wildcat quarterback, he could be at wide receiver. They've got an offensive line that's been playing together for the most part."
Thorpe and Scott will encounter a North Carolina defensive line that touts first-team All-ACC lineman Quinton Coples at end and 2011 preseason All-ACC'er Tydreke Powell at tackle, as well as a linebacker corps led by veterans Kevin Reddick (74 tkls, 6.0 TFL, 2 INT) and Zach Brown (72 tkls, 3 INT). The Tar Heels return six starters to a unit that ranked 30th nationally in total defense (338.5 ypg) and 45th in scoring defense (23.2 ppg) last season.
If the Dukes can survive North Carolina's front seven, then they may find some opportunities against a secondary missing four starters from the 2010 preseason depth chart. Cornerback Charles Brown is the lone starter back from that group but he must sit out of Saturday's contest due to suspension. Safeties Matt Merletti and Jon Smith enter the starting lineup alongside sophomore Tre Boston at one cornerback spot and a first-time starter at the other – either recently converted wide receiver Todd Harrelson or true freshman Tim Scott.