Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Today marks six weeks until the start of JMU football’s 2019 season. Last week we continued our weekly countdown series by looking at the seven best players on JMU’s roster. This week we’ll discuss six keys for JMU to upset West Virginia. I’m not saying it’s a sure thing, but the Dukes can beat West Virginia on August 31. Let’s dig into what they need to do to upset the Mountaineers.
Convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns
This applies to most games, but JMU can often get away with settling for field goals in FCS matchups because of its tremendous defense. Against a Power 5 team, even one that’s expected to have a down year, the Dukes will need to score touchdowns when it gets deep into its opponent’s territory.
JMU took NC State to the brink last season, but the Dukes settled for a pair of 19-yard field goals in the 24-13 loss. If JMU wants to beat West Virginia, it needs to score touchdowns in the red zone.
At the very least, JMU needs to be more efficient in the red zone than the Mountaineers. In a 2017 win over East Carolina, JMU scored on 2 of 3 red-zone possessions while the Pirates were just 2 for 5. The Dukes don’t need to be 5 for 5 with five touchdowns, but they do need to perform better in the red zone than they did in last season’s narrow defeat to the Wolfpack.
Make big plays
JMU’s last two wins over FBS teams were loaded with chunk plays. In 2017, the Dukes were good in the red zone, but they also scored three touchdowns of 70+ yards when they beat East Carolina 34-14. When beating SMU 48-45 in 2015, the Dukes amassed 729 total yards and scored three touchdowns of 40 yards or more.
Beating a team a Power 5 school is going to take a special play or two. Whether it’s a long run, a deep ball or a punt return touchdown, the Dukes need to create explosive plays to pull the upset.
Given JMU’s defensive ability, it make senses for the Dukes to be aggressive with their play calling. They were ultra conservative against NC State last season. With a strong defense and talented skill players on offense, the Dukes should take more chances against WVU. If the chances don’t pay off, the defense can still bail the Dukes out. Expect JMU to try hard to generate explosive plays.
Limit third-down conversions
NC State converted 11 of 16 third-down conversions against JMU last season. East Carolina was 6 of 16 when the Dukes smacked them the year prior. The Wolfpack were a far superior team than the Pirates, but it’s nearly impossible to beat an FBS team who converts 69% of their third downs.
JMU nearly beat a quality NC State team despite allowing them to convert nearly 70% of their third downs. If the Dukes can hold an average West Virginia team to 50% or less, they’re going to have a chance to pull the upset.
Winning this battle is going to come down to the JMU’s defensive line. If JMU can hold its own against the run despite an undersized defensive live, it should excel in third-and-long situations. JMU’s defensive line is built to rush the passer, and the secondary is extremely deep with Rashad Robinson returning into the fold. JMU will take its chances with Robinson, Charles Tutt, Wayne Davis Jr., Adam Smith and D’Angelo Amos in coverage. Stopping third-and-short with a smaller defensive line will prove difficult, though.
Win the turnover battle
Again, you can say this in most games, but it’s even more important against a Power 5 school. JMU doesn’t need to win the turnover battle against Saint Francis or Morgan State to win those games. It needs to at least tie the Mountaineers.
This comes down to fundamentals and decision making. Both quarterbacks will have a new head coach, new offensive coordinator and a new scheme to learn. We don’t know the starting quarterback for either team, but whoever wins the job needs to limit turnovers and make smart decisions. JMU’s quarterbacks struggled with that at times in 2018.
Forcing turnovers has been a strength of the JMU defense in recent years, but the Dukes took a step back in that category in 2018. Aside from Jimmy Moreland, the Dukes’ secondary wasn’t as turnover-focused as previous seasons. Look for their experienced secondary to grab an interception or two in this game. They grabbed three interceptions in the win over ECU.
Starting QB needs to shine
Regardless of who starts, JMU’s quarterback needs to play extremely well. Vad Lee became the first quarterback to rush and pass for over 275 yards in a college game in the SMU win. Bryan Schor was steady in 2017, tallying 252 total yards and two touchdowns in the ECU victory. He completed 71% of his passes.
DiNucci played well against NC State last season, completing 85% of his passes for 197 yards and a touchdown. He rushed for an additional 79 yards and fumbled once. The Dukes need a similar performance this season, although they can trade the high completion percentage for a few longer connections.
FCS-FBS upsets require elite FCS quarterback play. If JMU beats West Virginia, its starting quarterback will play well.
Handle the heat
This point speaks to depth. Last year’s game against NC State was a scorcher, and this year’s game against West Virginia in late August at 2 p.m. should be hot. With 22 fewer scholarships, playing in summer heat becomes a disadvantage for JMU.
The Dukes need to keep their defense off the field and find ways to wear down West Virginia’s starting defensive unit. Expect JMU to rely on multiple running backs, multiple receivers and a variety of offensive line combinations. With Riley Stapleton suspended, JMU needs a few receivers to step up to help keep drives alive to force the West Virginia defense to stay on the field.
It often goes unmentioned, but DiNucci cramped up slightly in the second half of the NC State game and left the game for part of a series. The drive stalled, and the Dukes punted. In a close game, it can change everything if players cramp or fatigue in the fourth quarter.
Keep a close eye in the trenches in the second half. If JMU’s offensive and defensive lines can move the line of scrimmage late in the game, the Dukes have more than enough skill players on the outside of their offense and defense to beat the Mountaineers.
The bottom line
JMU nearly beat a nine-win NC State team in 2018 with an underachieving squad. This West Virginia team won’t be as good as NC State’s 2018 squad, and the Dukes should be improved. What’s that mean? It means the Dukes are in prime position to pull an upset if they take care of the six keys were shared.