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VMI football, prepping to face top-ranked JMU, ready to shock the world

scott wachenheim
VMI football coach Scott Wachenheim. Photo by Chris Graham.

Top-ranked, yet third-seeded, James Madison is a 14.5-point favorite heading into Saturday’s first-round FCS playoff matchup with SoCon champ VMI.

Keydets coach Scott Wachenheim has no problem being the big underdog.

“The fact that they’re only 51 miles up the road, we know everything about them. I mean, we know who their players are, we know what they do. And we’re very impressed with the way they play the game of football, with the way they recruit, the way they coach. To go out and beat a champion like JMU would be tremendous, because it would say we have the championship mettle to go all the way and win the national championship,” Wachenheim said on a Zoom call with reporters this week.

VMI (6-1) is a playoff team for the first time in school history, a history that didn’t even have the Keydets posting a winning record since 1981.

To say that no one had VMI sniffing the 2021 FCS playoff field would be an understatement. It would also be wrong.

Wachenheim had this odd feeling a few months back.

“I knew it back in January that if we made the playoffs, we would end up playing JMU. It just makes financial sense for the NCAA to pair us,” Wachenheim said. “I wish the stadium was at 100 percent capacity, because it would be sold out. I wish we could open it up beyond 25 percent. I mean, the state of Virginia is at 30 percent, and I’ve got a lot of VMI Keydet fans that want to go to the game. So I’m hopeful that maybe between now and game day they open it up maybe a little bit more, but it’s a tremendous honor, a tremendous opportunity to play the best of the best, and the team and I are looking forward to it.”

JMU (5-0) has been tested just once this year, back in Week 3, a 20-17 win at Elon.

The Dukes, who clinched their at-large bid with a 23-6 win over Richmond this past weekend, rank 13th in FCS in total offense (434.6 yards per game) and first in total defense (175.6 yards per game).

It’s on defense where JMU asserts its will on opponents, limiting foes to 9.8 points per game – the 17 scored by Elon being the season-high in points allowed.

“They’re faster, well-coached, they use their hands well in jam technique. When they’re playing zone, they get to the right spots on the field, they read the right things. And then when the ball’s in the air, they cover ground faster than anything we played,” Wachenheim said. “I just think it’s the speed, and then also the physicality. When they come up and hit you, they hit you. I mean, it’s a different ballgame when you watch them play.

“We played Marshall and Army last year, and Marshall. I mean, my gosh, I don’t know if there’s a team in the country that hits harder than their defense did a year ago. So we’ll adapt to it just like we did in that game, but it might take us a series of two to get used to the speed of the game that JMU brings.”

The top receiver for the Dukes offense is a familiar name to VMI fans – 5’8” junior wideout Kris Thornton, who set a Keydets program record with 87 catches in 2018 before transferring to JMU.

The ground game is a four-headed monster – Percy Agyei-Obese (95.3 yards per game, five TDs), Kaelon Black (85.0 yards per game, one TD), Jawon Hamilton (55.6 yards per game, four TDs), and Latrele Palmer (33.5 yards per game, two TDs).

QB Cole Johnson is efficient (67.3 percent completion rate), though maybe turnover-prone (four INTs in five starts).

“They’ve got a stable of running backs that are extremely elusive and extremely fast, and they give the ball to all four of them. They do a tremendous job running the football, their offensive line is extremely athletic. I think they’re talented, a wide receiver, obviously we know Kris Thornton very well caught 87 balls for us, and he’s a threat in the slot,” Wachenheim said.

The game plan for VMI: well, the Keydets can move it themselves, ranking 16th in FCS in total offense (431.1 yards per game), with backup quarterback Seth Morgan (76.0 percent completion rate, 1,088 yards, 8 TDs/1 INT in three starts in 2021) filling in nicely for injured three-year starter Reece Udinski (72.1 percent, 1,087 yards, 7 TDs/2 INTS in four starts in 2021).

“That’s why we run the Air Raid style of offense. We try to make them play the whole 53 and a third yards of the width of the field and then 30 yards vertically down the field. We try to figure out a way to get our best players matched up on their worst players and then get that best player the ball. And if they double cover that guy, throw it to the guy that’s single or left open. And then if they take everybody out to stop the pass, we’ll go ahead and run the football,” Wachenheim said.

“Defensively, like every week, we’ve got to stop the run, we can’t let them just run the ball down our throat,” Wachenheim said. “We’ve got to do our best job stop the run, we’ve got to pressure the quarterback make him uncomfortable in the pocket. And if they give us any takeaway opportunities, we’ve got to take advantage of that. And then we got to play dominant special teams games, you know, we’ve got to be able to win the special teams battle and try and find a way to get after them in the special teams arena and create a field-position advantage for our football team.”

Easier said than done, of course.

JMU is one of the elite programs at the FCS level.

Everything about the program is about the pursuit of national championships.

“Their staff does an unbelievable job recruiting, and they’ve got a great product to recruit to James Madison,” Wachenheim said. “Location is awesome. Their facilities are the best in FCS that I’ve seen. There’s a lot of things about that campus that make it very attractive for an 18- to 22-year-old young man to go to school there. When we go head-to-head against them in recruiting, we don’t win, and even kids we offer full scholarships will turn us down to be a preferred walk-on at JMU.

“They have excellent talent. I also think they’re outstanding football coaches. They’re very sound in what they do on offense and defense, they attack you on several different levels. Offensively, they can run it, they can throw it, and on defense, they’re sound. They blitz, they play man coverage, but they also play zone. And they can pressure the quarterback by rushing four men, and they don’t have to blitz to pressure the quarterback. And that’s a challenge for any throwing offense to deal with.”

But on Saturday, it’s all about who can block, tackle, execute better.

VMI, the champs of the rugged Southern Conference, have at the least a puncher’s chance here.

“To me, it’s another football game,” Wachenheim said. “Every game you play is a playoff game. I mean, we had to beat ETSU, we had to beat Citadel, or we wouldn’t be in the playoffs. We lost to ETSU, and luckily they lost to Mercer the next week so we could control our own destiny. I think every game is a playoff game. Usually you have to go 7-0, 8-0 to win a conference championship and qualify for the playoffs. So I don’t think the intensity or the nature of the game is going to be any different.

“I just don’t feel it’s any more or less pressure than any other game. That’s why I think our lack of playoff experience doesn’t matter,” Wachenheim said. “Plus, it’s the shortest road trip we’ve had all year. I mean, we’re going to go up to Staunton, stay in a hotel for two nights.

“For a VMI Keydet, you kidding me? Air conditioning, hotel meals? We don’t go to Crozet (Hall) to eat? We got maid service? Are you kidding me? You don’t have to march at 7 a.m. I mean, this is a pleasure trip,” Wachenheim said.

Story by Chris Graham

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