By Bennett Conlin
Coming into the season, and throughout much of the early schedule, there was an assumption among JMU football fans that the Dukes would head back to Frisco, Texas, for the third consecutive season. With a loaded roster, a superb head coach and five talented running backs, fans believed JMU football’s 2018 season almost certainly included a January date in the national championship. After eight games, that’s anything but a guarantee.
JMU suffered its first CAA loss under Mike Houston when the Dukes dropped a 27-24 thriller against Elon on Oct. 6. Against Stony Brook on Saturday, JMU squeaked out a 13-10 win. The Dukes were more than 20-point betting favorites in both of those games. JMU fans, it’s time to shift your expectations.
Unless you’re a North Dakota State fan, it doesn’t make any sense to assume your team will make the national championship in 2018. North Dakota State’s path isn’t a certainty, but the Bison look like the obvious favorite to win the national title. Regardless, there are too many teams capable of beating JMU for Dukes fans to expect a national title berth. This doesn’t mean the Dukes won’t make a third trip to Toyota Stadium in three years, but it’s foolish to assume JMU will cruise to Frisco.
JMU’s 2018 season is defined by close calls against quality teams and blowout victories over lesser foes. JMU has only played two ranked FCS teams this season, and the Dukes are 1-1 in those games with 37 points scored and 37 points allowed.
In the two games against ranked CAA teams, the Dukes are 1-1 with 206 combined rushing yards on 81 carries. That’s good for an average 2.54 yards per carry, an awful number for any team, especially one so focused on establishing the run. The Dukes had a net gain of 305 yards across those two games, but lost nearly 100 yards on negative rushes and sacks. For a team looking to play in a national title, the offensive line play isn’t what it needs to be. JMU hasn’t generated consistent push up front against the best defenses, and when it does, the running backs haven’t been able to break free for explosive runs.
Defensively, the Dukes exhibit continued periods of greatness. They allow an average of just 9.75 points per game, one of the best marks in the entire country. On special teams, D’Angelo Amos holds three punt return touchdowns to his name and averages 25 yards per punt return. Ethan Ratke and Harry O’Kelly continue to kick consistently, making 16 of their 18 field goal attempts and all 33 extra points. The Dukes are the least penalized team in the CAA and rank first in the CAA in kickoff coverage.
Statistic after statistic points to JMU’s defense and special teams being two of the most dangerous and efficient groups in the entire FCS. But the offense’s inconsistency remains. It’s impossible to ignore the shaky offensive play against quality foes.
JMU holds all the pieces necessary to make a legitimate run at the national title. From a playmaking quarterback to a deep backfield to a frightening defensive line and solid secondary, the Dukes look close to perfect on paper.
On the field, however, the offense continues to struggle in the red zone and the rushing attack looks tame. It’s a team reliant on its defense. Fortunately for JMU fans, the Dukes might have the best defensive and special teams units in the entire country.
Fans shouldn’t panic. The Dukes aren’t done, but with their current offensive output, they’re far from a sure bet to play in January.