Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Jack Fitzpatrick
By now, we all know the Dukes open their season this Saturday in Morgantown, West Virginia, taking on the Mountaineers of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Dukes’ fans are excited and have heard different takes and expectations for this game all summer, but let’s stop with that for the time being and take a week-by-week look at JMU’s schedule. Let’s see if a perfect record is really feasible or just how likely a national championship at the end of it all really is.
Week 1: JMU @ WVU
Score: JMU 21, WVU 17
This is an FCS-FBS matchup that has become the trendy upset pick. Well, it really has been all summer for a few good reasons.
Reason one: JMU has become known as the yearly David in these “David and Goliath” matchups. The Dukes took down Virginia Tech in 2010, they obliterated ECU into another dimension in ‘17 and gave NC State a real scare just last year.
Reason two: Both of these teams come in sporting brand new coaches. JMU lost Mike Houston to the aforementioned ECU after a weird breakup that was very public during the FCS playoffs. The Mountaineers, on the other hand, lost their head man, Dana Holgorsen, when he decided to go back to Houston where he was previously its quarterback coach and offensive coordinator during the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Now, to the meat of this,. Looking at the game I believe JMU has the capabilities to pull this one out. It’ll be a close game and come down to the wire, but with the experience returning for the Dukes to go along with their depth on the O-line and their explosiveness on the D-line, the Dukes can pull this one out late.
JMU’s key is its platoon of FBS transfers. This isn’t a typical FCS program with a few key players that had an offer or two from low-end FBS schools, rather they are made up of guys who had some Power-5 offers or even played on a Power-5 team, like Ben DiNucci (Pitt), Ron’Dell Carter (Rutgers) and Wayne Davis (Ohio State).
JMU — behind its experience and depth — will win 21-17 in a game won in the final minutes.
Week 2 vs. Saint Francis
Score: JMU 57, Saint Francis 17
This is one of the early-season cupcake matchups JMU always schedules, and that is the way it is going to play out on the scoreboard.
Saint Francis is a part of the Northeast Conference (NEC) and went 4-7 overall and 2-4 in conference play last year. Last season they lost to Albany, a perennial bottom feeder of the CAA, 38-25. In a comparable matchup against Robert Morris last season, they did win, however it was only by 13 (JMU won by 66).
The Red Flash’s top rusher and starting quarterback from last season both graduated. Looking at their roster, their most experienced quarterback is a redshirt sophomore who is 2 for 8 and has 40 total yards in his career.
Saint Francis is a young team that may come out and play hard, but that won’t be enough. The Dukes are a powerhouse in the FCS and will obliterate the Red Flash. Don’t be surprised to see a Gage Maloney or Cole Johnson appearance in this one along with some other guys looking to get early-season reps.
Week 3 vs. Morgan State
Score: JMU 69, Morgan State 10
As you can tell by my score prediction, I believe this will be another big-time win for the Dukes. This is an interesting Mid Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) team, though. Last season they were able to take down NC A&T which was a top team in the FCS for a majority of the year.
Senior running back Joshua Chase and senior quarterback DeAndre Harris do return. The duo made up a potent backfield as they combined for 1,828 yards of total offense. Morgan State is a slightly more experienced group as they have 17 seniors and graduate students on their roster.
Morgan State plays a rush-heavy style of football. It relies heavily on the dynamic play of its quarterback Harris, who ran for 367 yards, second on the team, and threw for 947 yards.
What makes the Bears’ offense unique is their quarterback situation. Not only do they have Harris, but also a redshirt sophomore who got just as much playing time, DJ Golatt. They seem to have two quarterbacks they can lean on. It will be interesting to see how that plays out when they come to the Valley and have to take on a defense that is lined with NFL talent.
This is a game JMU should win without a doubt. Morgan State showed some flashes last season and caught some good teams in trap games, but this early in the season JMU should dominate from start to finish. Expect this to be like the Norfolk State game last season but for all four quarters.
Week 4 at Chattanooga
Score: JMU 20, Chattanooga 7
According to Brian McLaughlin of Hero Sports, this is the best Chattanooga team since their playoff run in 2016. This is a team that will be tested early on. In the first four weeks of the season, they play No. 6 Jacksonville State, FBS foe Tennessee and then the Mocs will have the tough task to host the Dukes.
Chattanooga was picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the SoCon, but behind the arm of Nick Tiano, a transfer from Mississippi State, they could easily find themselves in the playoff hunt at the end of the season. Heck, if they can win their first 2 games and come up close against Tennessee (or get the upset) this could be a big-time matchup by week 4 in the season.
This game will end up being a good win for JMU at the end of the season. Looking back, if Chattanooga is a playoff team and the Dukes were able to get it done, this win could give JMU a leg up when it’s vying for a top-four seed.
Chattanooga, like JMU, is an experienced team with a dynamic quarterback who could give the Dukes problems. If JMU can’t get their edges set with Carter and John Daka, Tiano could give the Dukes some problems.
I believe JMU will have all of the problems settled by this point in the season. While 20-7 doesn’t seem like a gaudy score like the games before, I think this is a game Curt Cignetti wants to play to get the team ready for conference play. The Dukes will jump out to an early lead and pound the ball with Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton to a win. Chattanooga will tack on a late TD in garbage time to make it look a little closer than the game really was.
Week 5 at Elon
Score: JMU 32, Elon 27
Record: 5-0, 1-0 CAA
This game in any other circumstance would be a trap game on a schedule — the middle game of three road trips against good teams. However, there are factors that play into this that make this a game that not a single player, coach or fan will overlook, on either side of the ball. The reasons …
- Cignetti’s return to Elon
- Start of conference play
For those three reasons, neither side will let this game sneak up on them and both sides will come out with unparalleled emotion and energy. JMU will want a win to avenge last year’s loss at the hands of Elon at Bridgeforth, and it will want to win for their new coach. On the flip side, Elon will want to prove to their ex-coach that he didn’t leave for greener pastures and that he made a royally huge mistake by leaving the Phoenix.
Elon’s junior quarterback Davis Cheek will lead the team after suffering a season-ending injury last year. Cheek tore up the Dukes secondary last season, going 16 for 32 for 286 yards. Sophomore running back Jaylan Thomas was named the CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year and looks to build on what he did to finish out last season. After Elon’s star senior running back, Malcolm Summers, went down last season, Thomas received a majority of the carries. Thomas missed last season’s game with an injury so he provides a new challenge for the Dukes’ defense.
Based off the two teams’ similar style of play, it is going to be a knock-out, drag-out fight. This game will come down to DiNucci’s arm and decision making. He was excellent last season in the matchup, throwing for 316 yards despite the offensive line hardly blocking for him as he was sacked five times. This year DiNucci has to make the right read and get the ball out on time, and the offensive line has to provide enough protection to allow DiNucci to go through a read.
If, and that is a big if since there are slight question marks surrounding this offensive line, if that can happen, JMU can win this game. It will be a close game, but JMU should have enough big-play capability and emotion to ride this game out to a win.
Week 6 at Stony Brook
Score: Stony Brook 21, JMU 17
Record: 5-1, 1-1 CAA
Remember my mention of a trap game earlier? Well, this is it. The Dukes will be coming off an emotional win at Elon, and this is the tail end of their toughest part of the schedule, not to mention Stony Brook is perennially a great CAA team.
Stony Brook lost a lot of its guys — it was practically gutted of its starters. Both of its leading rushers in Donald Liotine and Jordan Gowins graduated, as well as quarterback Joe Carbone. On defense, the Seawolves weren’t hit as hard (but still pretty hard) — three of their top five tacklers graduated.
But, it is Stony Brook, head coach Chuck Priore seems to put together a contender year in and year out. We know a couple things about the Seawolves. They will have an in-your-face, tough rushing attack and a get-up-in-you type of defense. This team is an embodiment of their head coach and location.
With that being said, JMU will have just beaten Elon in a physical game after beating Chattanooga in a physical game. At this point in the season, and especially after its back-to-back-to-back road games, JMU will struggle in this one. The Dukes will still be in it late, but they will just run out of gas and lose to the Seawolves.
Week 7 vs. Villanova
Score: JMU 32, Villanova 17
Record: 6-1, 2-1 CAA
Villanova is a really good team, or so we think. Last season the Wildcats beat Temple to start, and everyone jumped on their bandwagon. Then injuries hit them like the plague. It seemed every one of their go-to players went down and they never recovered, finishing with a season to forget.
Now this year this Villanova team will be good and will be in the top third in the CAA. But after not being at home in just about a month, JMU will want to put on a show at Bridgeforth. After falling to Stony Brook the week before, JMU will have something to prove and it will do so.
No one really knows what Villanova will be like this year, but I know the Wildcats won’t beat the Dukes.
Week 8 at William & Mary
Score: JMU 55, W&M 10
Record: 7-1, 3-1 CAA
The Tribe have new life with the hiring of Mike London, the former UVA coach. However, the problem they still have is their roster. They just don’t have the talent it takes to compete in the top third of the CAA and that will be evident in this game.
Yes, the game is in Williamsburg so that adds something to it, but after watching what Daka did to the Tribe’s offensive line seemingly every play in 2018, I believe this is going to be a long day for quarterback Shon Mitchell.
JMU wins this game easily. The Dukes will jump out to an early lead and never look back.
Week 9 vs. Towson
Score: JMU 38, Towson 28
Record: 8-1, 4-1 CAA
The quarterback who wins this game will most likely be the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. This is the Flacco-DiNucci bowl.
Flacco, all jokes aside, is an elite arm in the CAA. He is deadly when he drops back to pass, and he is deadly when he decides to pull it down and flash his athleticism. But so is DiNucci. If you are determining which team’s position group has the edge, the quarterback position is a wash. Then the advantage swings to JMU with every other position group, and that is why JMU will win. The Dukes are just better at the running back position, the wide receiver spot and across the board on defense.
The amount of talent that Flacco has, though, is enough to still give the Tigers a chance in this game. Based off his play last season, he is going to give this Dukes defense fits. When the Dukes come on the blitz, he is going to pick the secondary apart, but if the defense stays back in coverage he can rattle off a 10-yard rush. When it comes down to it, I think Cignetti and co. will have the game plan just right to win this game and set the Dukes up in a favorable position heading down the stretch.
Week 10 vs. New Hampshire
Score: JMU 28, UNH 10
Record: 9-1, 5-1 CAA
The University of New Hampshire is coming off its first missed playoff appearance in just about two decades, but the Wildcats are set to get back there. They have redshirt freshman quarterback Bret Edwards ready to take over the controls and get this team back to their winning ways.
After starting last season 1-6, they finished the season winning three of their last four. This is a proud team. No matter what their record is at this point in the season, it won’t be an easy win. I mean just look at last season when JMU went to New Hampshire’s home turf and put up an abysmal performance and lost 35-24. UNH is a good team with a good defense, and at this point in the season, that is huge.
Cignetti will have the Dukes ready, though. Everything coming out of camp shows him talking about preparing for the full season and preparing for the long haul. JMU will be setting itself up for a tough playoff run, but it will take care of the Wildcats first.
Week 11 vs. Richmond
Score: JMU 50, Richmond 21
Record: 10-1, 6-1 CAA
Richmond is projected to be bad again this season. We know what JMU can do against this Spiders team, we saw it firsthand last season. With where this game is on the schedule, it would normally make for a classic, however this year it will more than likely be a tune-up.
Richmond will have a different starting quarterback from the last time these teams faced off, in redshirt junior Joe Mancuso. Last season he threw two passes in the game, both incompletions, but he started the rest of the games for the Spiders after the Dukes thumped them. He finished as the team’s leading rusher and threw for 1,185 yards.
Outside of the talent at quarterback in Mancuso, the Spiders are lacking everywhere else. The Dukes will rack up an early lead and then bring in backups to finish it out.
Week 12 at Rhode Island
Score: JMU 32, URI 18
Record: 11-1, 7-1 CAA
Rhode Island was the surprise team to start the season last year. They Rams started 4-1 with a big win over No. 15 Delaware. Then they lost their quarterback to injury and went 2-4 to finish the season. Now, coming into this season, they did lose their stud quarterback JaJuan Lawson, but they have Vito Priore who was waiting in the wings last season and got valuable reps at the end when Lawson went down.
I do expect Rhode Island to have another solid year and to continue its growth, however, I don’t see it doing much against this Dukes. Last season JMU won a late-season matchup, 48-31, behind DiNucci’s 227 yards, but his two interceptions are what kept Rhode Island in the game. This season I don’t see interceptions being a problem DiNucci has to deal with. I expect JMU to open up and lead and maintain it throughout.
FINAL RECORD: 11-1, 7-1 CAA
After going into each week and seeing just what the Dukes are up against, I believe they go 11-1. A lot of other people around the FCS world have them near or around this mark as well, but most have their loss being the WVU game. After reading all the content Bennett has put out dissecting that matchup, I truly believe the Dukes can come out of Morgantown with a win. It is the three-game stretch with Chattanooga, Elon and Stony Brook that gives me worries. I can see the Dukes going 3-0 there, but just as easily see them going 0-3. If they can get out of that stretch with a 2-1 record, they are a real threat to go down to Frisco and reclaim their title.