GREENVILLE, N.C. — After a few series Saturday night, James Madison by no means looked out of place — physically, organizationally, athletically — against an FBS opponent, East Carolina. The challenge for the FCS team in these games is maintaining that look despite the usual FBS advantages in size and depth.
In the first meeting of these programs, the Dukes seemed to have those edges. They regularly rotated players at most positions without noticeable drop-offs in a 34-14 win. For the most part, they stayed with Cardon Johnson at tailback. He broke TD runs of 85 and 80 yards on the way to a 265-yard night. Johnson, who missed most of last season with a heel injury, carried only 17 times.
His long TD runs came on the same up-the-middle play.
“The line executed up front, opened the holes up. I saw the crease and believed in my speed,” said Johnson, a 5-foot-9 202-pounder from Newport News.
Marcus Marshall’s 70-yard TD run with 2:34 left made it 34-7. ECU scored with 23 seconds left.
Will the Pirates turn out to be a really good FBS team this season? Maybe not. But they haven’t been that in the past and came into Saturday’s opener for both teams having won 25 straight over FCS competition. JMU collected its second FBS victory in three years. The Dukes won 48-45 at SMU in 2015.
Indisputably, the Dukes have FBS-caliber players. Many of those who contributed here transferred to Madison from FBS schools: WR David Eldridge (Virginia), LB Gus Little (Maryland), DL Ron’Dell Carter (Rutgers), WR Ishmael Hyman (Kansas), Marshall (Georgia Tech), DL Darrious Carter (Virginia) and OL A.J. Bolden (Toledo).
Among 40,169 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium were approximately 2,500 JMU fans, according to Madison. They chanted “JMU! JMU! JMU!” in the final minutes, when most of the ECU backers had departed.
“I was pleased with the way our team played. You expected it to be a back-and-forth ballgame, and one that was highly competitive,” JMU coach Mike Houston said.
The Dukes outgained the Pirates 614-372. Houston remembered the missed opportunities.
“I really felt like we did not play nearly as well as we can, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” he said.
On JMU’s first snap of the second half, Johnson ran 85 yards for the TD that made it 14-0. A tipped ball resulted in an ECU interception in JMU territory, and the Pirates scored two plays later to make it 14-7 with 10:11 left in the third period.
Madison stretched the lead to 21-7 late in the third quarter on a 17-yard TD pass from Schor to sophomore tight end Nick Carleton, and Johnson’s 80-yard scoring run made it 27-7 early in the fourth.
JMU, the defending FCS national champion, was ranked No. 1 in the STATS FCS preseason poll and the overwhelming favorite to win the CAA, according to the league’s preseason prognosticators. ECU, coming off a 3-9 year, is picked to finish fifth in the East Division of the American Athletic Conference.
Madison’s defense was undistinguished until the midway point of last season. By FCS tournament time, JMU allowed an average of 15 points in four playoff games. The defense may be the Dukes’ stronger side this year, though Madison returns senior quarterback Bryan Schor, the 2016 CAA offensive player of the year.
“I think we went into the game pretty confident,” said Schor (15 completions in 22 attempts, 192 yards). “We’ve had success in the past. We felt like we were returning a core group of guys. With our team, we expect to put in the work during the week and come out here and expect to win.”
James Madison won without six players suspended for various lengths because of violations of team rules. JMU, as the FCS guest of an FBS program, brought home a $300,000 appearance fee.
Next: JMU opens its home schedule against East Tennessee State on Saturday at 6 p.m., starting a string of three games at Bridgeforth Stadium. ... ECU plays at West Virginia on Saturday.
James Madison 7 0 14 13 — 34
East Carolina 0 0 7 7 — 14
JM–Schor 4 run (T.Gray kick), 5:11
JM–Ca.Johnson 85 run (T.Gray kick), 14:41
ECU–Pinnix 6 run (Verity kick), 10:11
JM–Carlton 17 pass from Schor (T.Gray kick), :06
JM–Ca.Johnson 80 run (kick failed), 11:36
JM–Marshall 70 run (Ratke kick), 2:34
ECU–D.Scott 1 run (Verity kick), :23
First downs 23 28
Rushes-yards 44-422 30-80
Passing 192 292
Comp-Att-Int 15-22-1 28-53-3
Return Yards 13 133
Punts-Avg. 4-42.75 4-44.5
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 1-1
Penalties-Yards 14-172 8-71
Time of Possession 29:57 30:03
RUSHING–James Madison, Ca.Johnson 17-265, Marshall 10-88, Schor 10-48, Woods 1-11, Sharp 4-11, Miller 1-1, Stinnie 0-0, (Team) 1-(minus 2). East Carolina, D.Scott 12-45, Ji.Williams 1-12, Pinnix 3-7, Sirk 4-7, Howe 4-7, Grayson 1-4, Minshew 3-3, (Team) 2-(minus 5).
PASSING–James Madison, Schor 15-22-1-192. East Carolina, Minshew 7-18-1-82, Sirk 21-35-2-210.
RECEIVING–James Madison, Miller 4-42, Eldridge 3-51, Hyman 3-49, Carlton 3-38, Ca.Johnson 2-12. East Carolina, Grayson 7-86, Farrier 7-68, T.Brown 4-43, Ji.Williams 3-41, Q.Johnson 3-28, Deans 2-18, Baggett 1-5, D.Scott 1-3.
MISSED FIELD GOALS–James Madison, T.Gray 35. East Carolina, Verity 51.