It all began on Sept. 24, 2016.
James Madison University overcame a 20-17 fourth-quarter deficit to upend the University of Maine 31-20 in Orono en route to winning the Football Championship Subdivision title.
It was the first of 12 consecutive wins last season and the Dukes have won three more this year to bring the nation’s longest winning streak of 15 games into Saturday’s 1:30 p.m. home game against the Black Bears at Harrisonburg, Virginia.
While top-ranked JMU was racking up 728 yards of offense in a 75-14 win over Norfolk State on Saturday, the Black Bears were enjoying a bye week.
UMaine practiced twice last week, lifted three times and watched some JMU video.
“You can tend to focus on the physical aspects but we also wanted to stay mentally sharp,” said UMaine second-year head coach Joe Harasymiak during Monday’s weekly Colonial Athletic Association conference call.
“We’re excited about going on the road and playing the team that’s on top of our league right now,” said Harasymiak.
UMaine may have to deal with some unexpected time off on Sept. 30 after the game at Central Florida was canceled. The change was made because Hurricane Irma created scheduling conflicts and Central Florida was forced to move a postponed conference game against Memphis to Sept. 30.
Harasymiak said UMaine is still trying to find another game to replace the Central Florida contest.
This week, UMaine isn’t dwelling on last year’s solid effort against JMU. The Black Bears are looking ahead to Saturday’s game.
“Our kids played a lot of the same kids they’ll be facing on Saturday,” said the second-year UMaine coach.
“But one of the things that separates us is they win big-time games in the fourth quarter and we don’t.”
JMU coach Mike Houston, the FCS and Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year last fall, said his team anticipates another dogfight.
“They’re a big, physical football team with a ton of experience on the offensive line and some really special skilled players at wide receiver and tailback,” said Houston, who is in his second season at JMU.
“Defensively, they’re fundamentally sound. They play hard. It’s going to be a very tough task for us on Saturday. I anticipate that we’ll be playing the best football team we’ll have played so far this season,” Houston added.
Prior to its win over Norfolk State, JMU beat Football Bowl Subdivision team East Carolina 34-14 and FCS team East Tennessee State University 52-10.
Houston said he was impressed with UMaine redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Ferguson.
“He plays like a redshirt junior. He’s mature, he has a good grasp of the offense and he is calm and collected. He doesn’t panic. He makes good decisions, he’s a good game manager and he puts the ball where it needs to be. He doesn’t force the ball (to covered receivers),” observed Houston.
“It helps that he has all the players back on that side of the ball and he has a cohesive offensive line,” Houston added.
Harasymiak knows his 1-1 Black Bears will have their hands full and pointed out that the JMU defense is more sound and more disciplined.
“You don’t get a lot of chunk plays against them. You have to beat them in one-on-one matchups,” said Harasymiak.
The Dukes also have a lot of offensive weapons.
“Their quarterback (Bryan Schor) is one of the most accurate passers I’ve seen,” said Harasymiak.
On the injury front, UMaine expects to regain the services of senior safety DeAndre Scott, who suffered a head injury in the 24-23 loss to New Hampshire and underwent concussion protocol. He didn’t play in the 60-12 victory over Bryant (Rhode Island) on Sept. 9.
Scott had a 61-yard kickoff return against JMU last year.
“This is the healthiest we’ve been. We’re good to go,” said Harasymiak.
JMU will be without running back Cardon Johnson, who suffered a season-ending leg injury against Norfolk State. He was their leading rusher with 347 yards on 37 carries.
Johnson rushed for 110 yards on 13 carries against UMaine last season.