HARRISONBURG, Va. — Nearly 1,000 miles apart, two head football coaches and their staffs experienced similar moments Sunday.
With a day less to work with before Friday’s 6 p.m. FCS playoff quarterfinal, University of Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley and James Madison head coach Curt Cignetti worked hard to get a feel for opponents their programs have never faced.
“It does create extra homework,” Farley said of the Friday game and a first-time opponent. “You’ve got to get a feel for them. It took me ... I’m sitting here a day and a half later and I’m starting to get a feel for them. The first time through (the film) I couldn’t get a bead on them. It is starting to fall together now that I’ve seen it enough times.
“It is a double-edged sword. Just as if you want to look at it from the other side, this is the first time they’ve seen us.
Cignetti admitted as much in his weekly press conference.
“They do seem to change quite a bit week to week on offense and defense,” Cignetti said. “We watched the first three games working backward on their defense. They’re a four-down (linemen) defense and we thought we had a bead on them with what was going on and then all of sudden you put the next game on and they’re a three-down (linemen) and almost exclusively three-down from that point on with mixing in four down.
“So there’s a little bit of an unknown in terms of what you are going to see, but that’s football.”
What Farley has learned about James Madison (12-1) is the Dukes are impressive across the board in all three phases of the game.
Offensively, senior quarterback Ben DiNucci completes 71 percent of his passes and has thrown just four interceptions while also being a player you’ve got to account for in James Madison’s vaunted rush game.
DiNucci has rushed for 492 yards and six scores. Percy Agyei-Obese leads the Dukes with 974 yards and 18 scores, while Jawon Hamilton has led James Madison in rushing in each of its last three games and has contributed 784 yards and five scores.
The Dukes averaged 255 rushing yards per game and have been held under 150 just once this season — 126 in a win over William & Mary. They have rushed for 394 and 332 yards, respectively, in their last two games.
Wide receiver Brandon Polk provides a quick-strike option and a balance to the run game with 1,062 receiving yards and 10 scores.
Last week in a 66-21 win over Monmouth, James Madison scored on all nine of its possessions.
“Offensively they are so sound and they do what they do and they do it very well,” Farley said.
“They have a lot of good skill players,” Panther defensive tackle Jared Brinkman added. “They have two good receivers and a great rotation of running backs. A group that is in sync. The QB is a really good runner, too. He’s looking to pull the ball so that is one thing we are going to need to sit on.”
While the Dukes lead the country with a 44.1 points per game average, the team also has a high-level defense led by defensive ends Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka, who have combined for 48 tackles for loss and 25 sacks.
“Very good and fast across the board … linebackers, safeties and the defensive line is especially quick off the ball,” UNI running back Trevor Allen said.
As far as limiting the havoc Carter and Daka create on a game-by-game basis, Allen adds the Panthers can’t snap their fingers and be completely different.
“We aren’t going to do anything out of the ordinary,” Allen said. “We are going to stick to our game plan. We are going to run the ball, mix in passes here and there and that is what we do.
“That is what has gotten us this far. It is what has been successful and we are going to stick to it.”
The Dukes are allowing just 63 rushing yards per game and like UNI are holding opponents to fewer than 300 yards total offense. While James Madison gave up a 93-yard run to Monmouth on the Hawks’ first play of the game last week, Monmouth finished with exactly 93 rushing yards on 18 carries.
James Madison has its own concerns with UNI’s size on offense and the speed of the Panthers’ defense.
“I think they have really good team speed on defense, the secondary runs really well,” Cignetti said. “The linebackers are bigger than what we usually see and the secondary is extremely athletic.”
Elerson Smith and his 21 tackles for loss and 14 sacks also caught Cignetti’s eye.
“When you get that many sacks that means you are a quick twitch guy,” Cignetti added. “Their whole defensive front is very impressive. This will be one of the better defenses we face this year without a question.”
Both teams, defensively, are ball hawking units. James Madison has generated 24 turnovers and has a plus-11 turnover margin. UNI has forced 32 turnovers, the fourth-most in the FCS, and leads the nation in turnover margin at plus-15.
With the forecast calling for freezing rain Friday night, holding onto the ball is imperative.
“The weather conditions could be iffy,” Cignetti said. “Friday night might be sloppy. Holding onto the football will be important.”
Having played in sleet (Weber State), rain (Illinois State) and on a snowy, icy field in Brookings, S.D., last week, UNI played in it all.
“It doesn’t matter,” Allen said. “At the end of the day both of us have to play in it. They are going to put a ball in between us and which team plays the best is going to win.”
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