HAMMOND -- It’s been a couple of years since the Southeastern Louisiana University football program advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs, but Lions coach Frank Scelfo is hoping the lessons he learned during his first time coaching in the postseason help the team this time around.
The No. 17 Lions (9-3) travel to face No. 3 James Madison (10-1) Saturday at 1 p.m. The contest will be broadcast on ESPN+ and can be heard in the Hammond area on Kajun 107.1 FM, The Highway 104.7 FM and The Boss 103.7 FM/1400 AM, as well as online at www.kajun107.net.
“When you go back two years ago, my inexperience playing at this level against teams like Villanova, when we walked out on the field is when I realized how undersized we were, how under manned for the most part, we were,” Scelfo said. “Our guys didn’t look like theirs. We get the win, and then we go up to Montana and ours didn’t look like theirs again. They just had different looking dudes, so I think we’ll look a bit better this time physically than we did two years ago with those guys. Now, I’ve got a better idea of James Madison’s speed when you compare it to Villanova and the ability for them to run and chase down and go sideline to sideline on defense. You can see James Madison. You can see their speed in their front seven and in the back end defensively how well they run.”
The Dukes had a bye in the opening round of the playoffs after finishing the regular season at No. 2 in both national polls and are making their eighth consecutive trip to the playoffs, winning a national title in 2016.
James Madison’s offense is led by quarterback Cole Johnson, who like Southeastern quarterback Cole Kelley, is a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, which Kelley won after the spring season.
Johnson, who leads the JMU offense with five rushing touchdowns, has thrown for 2,953 yards, 32 touchdowns and two interceptions on 233-for-342 passing.
“You’ll enjoy watching him play, the way he manages it,” Scelfo said of Johnson. “You say, ‘well, he’s a game manager’. Everything’s going to go through him. He’s going to get the ball out of his hands. He checks at the line of scrimmage. The RPO game for them is really good. That’s a big part of their offense. He’s athletic, but I think he’s got good vision down the field. He can get the ball down the field. He sees coverage. He has a good pocket presence about him. Even when the room’s getting small, I think he stands in there and stands strong. He’s an All-American quarterback. I haven’t seen a lot of quarterbacks, and I saw ours, and I know how good ours is. That kid’s an All-American quarterback. He’s just really good.”
Kris Thornton (69 catches, 896 yards, 11 TDs) and Antwane Ward Jr. (67-994-11 TDs) lead the JMU receiving corps, while Latrele Palmer (659 yards, 2 TDs) is the Dukes’ leading running back.
“They’re going to get the ball,” Scelfo said of JMU’s top receivers. “That’s just what they do with them. I think their running game is very solid, buy they’re good up front. They do great job in protection. They get the ball out quick, so their plan offensively is really good.”
Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey has 86 tackles to lead a JMU defense giving up 15.5 points and 252.6 yards per game, while Greg Ross has a team-high three interceptions. Tucker-Dorsey, Taurus Carroll and Que Reed each have two interceptions.
“They play with their hair on fire,” Scelfo said of the JMU defense. “I think their front seven, they’re big and physical, but they’re as athletic as anybody we’ve played in the last couple of years, not just this year. They’re the best team we’ve played this year by far, and that includes Louisiana Tech, so it’s quite a challenge.”
“The two backers are probably a little under sized, but they can flat out fly, and they’re physical, very aggressive at the line of scrimmage, so you see a physical football team with those guys attacking the ball,” Scelfo continued. “On the back end, you’ll see a lot of man coverage. I feel like they’re talented enough to play man, and if they don’t play man against us, I’d be surprised. You’d figure we’re going to get some man coverage, zone blitzing, things like that, and kind of go on from there.”
JMU kicker Ethan Ratke is the national scoring leader (133 points) with a 28-for-31 mark on field goals, while Solomon Vanhorse averages 31.2 yards per kickoff return to lead the nation.
“They’re a complete football team, top to bottom,” Scelfo said. “They have no weaknesses anywhere along either side of the line of scrimmage. They’re very talented, and they’ve got good players at every position, and schematically, they do a great job.”
Meanwhile, Kelley leads the nation in total offense, passing yards, passing touchdowns, completion percentage and points responsible for and is third in rushing touchdowns having thrown for 4,727 yards, 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions while going 370-for-502 passing. He’s also rushed for a team-high 480 yards and 16 touchdowns. Austin Mitchell leads the SLU receiving corps with 69 catches for 1,055 yards and nine touchdowns.
Even with those numbers, Scelfo said the Lions will have to be more sharp on offense against the Dukes than they were in last week’s 38-14 win over Florida A&M to open the playoffs at Strawberry Stadium.
“I want the consistency to happen,” Scelfo said. “I want our focus to be where it’s supposed to be all the time. Not to have these lapses and say, ‘That’s OK, we’ll get it the next series.’ In games like this against James Madison, you’re not going to get a next series. It’s going to be over and done with, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re on top of it this week to put us in a position to where if we have that opportunity, we take advantage of it. We don’t swap touchdowns for field goals.”
Southeastern’s defense will be looking to build on last week’s effort in which the Lions held the Rattlers to 291 yards of total offense, including a pair of late touchdowns. In that game, Scelfo said the Lions played 13 on the defensive line, and he’s hoping that depth pays off again.
“We’ll bring 12 or 13 and go from there,” Scelfo said. “Different packages, some of them go in. Some are more pass rush guys. Some are more base down guys, but we’re going to play them all.
“I thought our pad level was better this past week, and it was more consistent throughout the game,” Scelfo continued. “Because of that, we’re able to rotate guys in there, and some guys played a little bit more because they were doing a better job. When you see guys out there a little bit longer, because we rotate them pretty much evenly early, when you see guys staying out there on the field, it’s because they’re getting the job and the other ones aren’t, so we just move them on in there. They’re pretty much interchangeable to tell you the truth.”
He's also hoping the Lions’ previous experience in the postseason works to the team’s advantage.
“Physically, we knew we needed some different parts, and I think we got those,” Scelfo said in regard to how the program has changed since the 2019 playoff run. “I think we’re in a much better position from that standpoint. The players are all different though. We’ve got some of the same players, but they’re in different roles, different times in their careers, different times in their lives, so they’re more mature. They’re two years older. They’ve played a lot more games. I don’t know is much going to translate over from that?”
“There’s going to be some different stuff from that standpoint, but I think we’ve got a good football team,” Scelfo continued. “I’m looking forward to going up there and playing. I want to play these games. This is why I came here. This is why our team prepares, to play in this situation in these venues. People down here need to see what goes on in other parts of the country, whether it be facilities, support, whatever it is. I want everybody to see that. I want Hammond; I want Southeastern; I want our administration to see what goes on in other places to see what it takes to be a No. 3 seed, to see what it takes to get to that level and consistently stay there.”