FCS playoffs: Jake Melville keeps Colgate rolling, defenses reeling

Bracket: FCS playoffs

When Colgate faces Sam Houston State (10-3) on Saturday in Huntsville, Texas, the Bearkats defense will have to guess just what they're facing on each snap.

Both in terms of personnel and scheme, it’s hard to lock in on the Raiders, as James Madison (9-3) found out last week when Colgate (9-4) arrived in Harrisonburg, Va., and dealt the fifth-seeded Dukes a 44-36 FCS second-round loss.

The Raiders, the regular-season Patriot League champion, typically line up in a pistol formation with junior Jake Melville at quarterback and sophomore James Holland as the sole running back. In facing James Madison, it was an unfortunate case of picking a poison for the Dukes defensively as Holland ran for 167 yards and Melville was a yard behind at 166. The duo each ran for two scores and Melville added another two touchdowns through the air.

The Colgate pistol formation at its outset looks like it is stepping into a not uncommon, but still challenging, read option offense. Sometime after the ball is snapped the Raiders offense can morph into a triple option, an offense that Navy runs very successfully at the FBS level. The difference is the Mids’ quarterback is usually under center at the snap and the entire defense knows they are looking at a triple option offense. It still is extremely difficult to defense, as evidenced by Navy’s 9-2 record.

“We tried to squeeze the down blocks, and take away the quarterback run, and he [Melville] started handing the ball off a little bit wider,” JMU head coach Everett Withers told ASN after the game. The goal was to shut down the quarterback inside run, push Melville’s handoff out wider and stretch out the Raiders laterally. There the Dukes superior speed could contain Colgate. In doing so, Colgate’s read option look started opening holes on the inside that turned into big gainers against a defense with one eye on the perimeter.

Holland broke a 63-yard touchdown score between the tackles in the second quarter and Melville added a crucial 67-yard gainer in the fourth that led to his deciding score two plays later. For the Dukes, it was another case of defensing two different threats, this time schematic ones.

“Our run really established the line of scrimmage and we had some big holes to run through,” said Melville. “I was mostly reading and reacting to what was available.”

The 6-1 junior from northern New Jersey’s scholastic power Sparta High School was quick to respond when asked how he selected Colgate when considering college options. “Mainly because it’s a great school. For football, I was also familiar with the type of offense they run,” said Melville.

His comfort running that offense is evident. Melville has rushed for 1,086 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s thrown for another 10 scores and 2,410 yards through the air. He also knows when to hand the ball off, as Holland has scored 15 touchdowns on the ground.

Sam Houston’s head coach K.C. Keeler is no stranger to Eastern opponents, nor success. Keeler has been successful at every stop, including an 11-year stay at the CAA’s Delaware. His lifetime record is 195-81-1, and he’s posted a combined 21 wins in his first two seasons in Huntsville.

He is well aware of the looks that Colgate can throw at a defense, but knows well enough not to over adjust defensively and stray from their strength. “Everything starts with our base. We’re a cover-four base. Everything they do, let’s handle out of that,” Keeler told ASN on Tuesday. “From there we add to it. It’s an option offense, so you don’t add a lot because if you make one mistake, they’re out of the gate. We can’t be in a situation where we’re thinking too much. Your team needs to know their job and do their job.”

The Raiders can also play defense, as junior linebacker Kyle Diener, the first defensive player to win ASN Player of the Week, has 121 stops to pace Colgate and lead the Patriot League. Against James Madison the Boca Raton, Fla., native had a team-leading dozen tackles. He will be pressed by a Sam Houston State offense that has eclipsed the forty-point mark in eight games this year.

Like the Raiders, the Bearkats were unseeded in the FCS playoffs and have come through two rounds to date. Also like Colgate, they turned the table on a foe in the playoffs that had defeated them handily earlier in the season.

For Sam Houston it was then-unbeaten Southland rival McNeese State (10-1) that they bested on the road last week, 34-29, to advance to the quarterfinals. Earlier on November 7, they dropped a 27-10 decision to the Cowboys. Colgate fell 26-8 to New Hampshire (7-5) in week two of the season, but had the final word when they ousted UNH, 27-20, in the first round of the playoffs to advance to play JMU.

Saturday’s game is set for a noon ET start at Sam Houston’s Bowers Stadium.

Above and middle: Colgate's Jake Melville has kept defenses off balance this season, rushing for 1,000 yards and passing for 2,000 yards. (Courtesy of Colgate Athletics)

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