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FCS Game of the Week Preview: No. 10 Elon Phoenix at No. 2 James Madison Dukes

The Dukes are 18-0 in conference play under Mike Houston

James Madison v North Carolina State Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Game Time: Saturday, October 6, 2018, 1:30 p.m. ET

Location: Bridgeforth Stadium, Harrisonburg, Virginia

How To Watch: MASN

Betting Odds: James Madison -37.5, O/U 49

I’m going to be honest. I’ve never seen a team ranked in the top ten be this large of an underdog heading into a game against another team playing at the same level. However, the James Madison Dukes have been absolutely dominant against FCS opponents this season. The Dukes have outscored FCS foes by a combined margin of 204-17 this year in just 13 quarters of play. Their game against Norfolk State was called after just one quarter, or else their point differential would be even higher.

The Elon Phoenix are going to have their work cut out for them. When these teams met in Elon last year, James Madison’s defense choked the life out of their offense in a 31-3 victory. The Phoenix are looking to put up more of a fight this time around.

Reasons to Like James Madison

The Dukes have looked incredible this season and a rubber match with North Dakota State seems very likely at this point. James Madison’s offense is averaging 7.2 yards per play, a number that places them ninth in the country in that category, despite playing reserves and keeping the ball on the ground in the second half.

James Madison has a stable of fantastic running backs in Marcus Marshall, Trai Sharp, and Cardon Johnson. Head coach Mike Houston rotates them out often in order to keep them fresh, and that has led to them continually carving up defenses this year. That has kept the pressure off former University of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben DiNucci.

Houston’s defense has been phenomenal in each of the previous two seasons, so it’s no surprise that James Madison again has one of the best defenses in the country. The Dukes are allowing just 222.6 yards per game, a number that puts them second in the nation.

Reasons Not to Like James Madison

As with North Dakota State last week, it’s hard to find something not to like with this team. DiNucci has performed fine through his first five games with the Dukes, and he had a pretty decent game against North Carolina State in a season opening loss.

You could critique the punting game, but that feels a little nitpicky. They have allowed four returns for a total of 99 yards this season, yet that’s a very small sample size to make a judgement from.

The one thing you can say is that the Dukes’ gaudy numbers are likely a bit inflated. Their last four wins came against teams that are unlikely to finish the season with a winning record, and Elon is a significantly tougher opponent than any FCS team they have faced.

Reasons to Like Elon

Davis Cheek has continued to grow as a sophomore. Cheek had a great freshman season en route to being named the CAA Freshman of the Year in 2017, and his numbers have been even better through the first four games of 2018. His 72.3 percent completion percentage is more than 13 points higher than it was last season, and he has been lethal in play action.

The defense has been solid too. Curt Cignetti has built Elon in the same image of his teams at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and that means playing great defense. The Phoenix have given up just 315.8 yards per game this season, and they shut down both Furman and New Hampshire.

Reasons Not to Like Elon

Elon runs to set up the pass, and they are very likely to have a hard time doing that against James Madison. The Phoenix are averaging 4.7 yards per carry, and while that number isn’t bad, it could be better given some of the defenses they have played. Elon ran the ball 48 times for 97 yards against James Madison last year, and it could be a similar type of day for the run game.


James Madison is going to win the game, but this number is bonkers. Elon is a pretty good football team, and the Phoenix are fundamentally sound. They won’t be run over like some other teams have, and they will look respectable in defeat.

Final Score: James Madison 27, Elon 10

In other CAA action, I think that the over is a great play when Towson meets Stony Brook, while the under is worth a bet in Maine versus Villanova.