Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Correction (8/29/19 at 6:35 a.m.): And earlier version of this article said Cignetti coached at IUPUI. He was actually the head coach at IUP. I lived in Pennsylvania for seven years and still get confused!
I often write for the die-hard JMU fans. A two-deep analysis between JMU and West Virginia isn’t for the casual football fan. It’s right up Michael Evangelista’s alley, but he’s arguably the biggest JMU fan on planet Earth. Mike never lacks energy, and the man consumes JMU football articles like a college student cramming for a test.
Not everyone can match his passion, though, especially when first learning about JMU football. With classes starting this Monday, many JMU students will get their first taste of JMU football, and maybe even FCS football, when they put the game on this Saturday.
I remember the first JMU game I ever watched. I pulled up a live stream in my dorm with my suitemates to watch the Dukes play Maryland in the 2014 season opener. I read all about Vad Lee and Everett Withers before the game. The Dukes are going to shock the world, I thought to myself. Fast forward three hours, and JMU hopped on its bus and headed home after a 52-7 loss. Yikes. My lack of JMU knowledge showed.
Since that loss, the Dukes are 55-12 with two FCS national title appearances and one national championship victory. JMU has posted three seasons of nine wins and two seasons of 14 wins. The Dukes are legit, and I’ve learned a whole lot about JMU football since that Maryland beatdown.
If you’re a new JMU student or you’re a 45-year old person in Oklahoma who just wants to join the JMU bandwagon, this article is for you. I’ve spent the last five years learning about this JMU program, and I wish I had an article like this when I showed up to Harrisonburg. With just a few days before the 2019 football season starts, let’s channel our inner Michael Evangelist and cram for season opener.
As any good procrastinator knows, you need to cover the fundamentals before studying the in-depth concepts. As we get ready for our JMU fandom test, let’s start with learning the answers to the easiest questions.
Mascot: The Dukes.
JMU does have a live dog mascot and a student in a Duke Dog suit at sporting events, but JMU is not called the JMU Duke Dogs. (If you know someone who works at ESPN, please pass that knowledge along.)
Location: Harrisonburg, Virginia.
If you’re a student, I really hope you know this by now. If you’re the stranger in Oklahoma, keep taking notes.
Stadium: Bridgeforth Stadium at Zane Showker Field
The field just got an upgrade, and it is marvelous. The stadium holds about 25,000 people. Depending on the game, the crowd will probably vary between about 20,000-25,000. Every now and then there’s a smaller crowd, but that’s usually due to students being on break.
Head coach: Curt Cignetti (1st season)
Cignetti came to JMU from Elon. He previously was the head coach at IUP prior to Elon, and he’s been an assistant all over the place, including a brief stint at Alabama under Nick Saban.
Starting quarterback: Ben DiNucci
The Pitt transfer started all 13 games last season, but he was benched in a couple of instances for poor play. When he’s good, he’s an elite FCS talent. When he’s bad, he throws five interceptions against Colgate.
2018 record: 9-4, the season ended with a 23-20 loss in the second round of the FCS playoffs to Colgate. And yes, the FCS has a playoff system. It’s great.
2019 preseason expectations: Depending on the poll, the Dukes are anywhere from 1st to 3rd in the early rankings. JMU is expected to contend for an FCS title.
Okay, enough of the basics. Let’s dig a little deeper.
Get excited, JMU can play
When I was a freshman, I was a wide-eyed, college-football loving, upset-minded lunatic. JMU wasn’t going to beat Maryland in the first game under its new head coach with FBS coaching ties. Well, this isn’t 2014.
Curt Cignetti’s 2019 roster is frightening. There are 6 FBS transfers on offense and defense expected to play major roles in Saturday’s game at West Virginia. The Dukes have at least one key FBS transfer at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive end, linebacker and safety.
In addition to the transfers, JMU attracts some of the top FCS recruits in the nation. Rashad Robinson, one of JMU’s starting cornerbacks, stands a legitimate chance of being drafted in the 2020 NFL Draft. He’s a redshirt senior with incredible talent.
The Dukes are about a touchdown underdog against West Virginia, but it’s a winnable game for JMU. The Dukes won’t lose 52-7 in this one. Even if JMU falls, the Dukes are going to be a top FCS team, and they should be favored in nearly every other regular-season game this season.
An underrated tradition
If you’re a student, you’ve likely heard about throwing streamers at home games after touchdowns (and sometimes other big plays). If you’re our new friend from Oklahoma, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.
When JMU makes a key play or scores a touchdown, fans throw purple and gold streamers across the stadium. This tradition started with the basketball program, when fans would actually throw toilet paper onto the court. The NCAA hates fun, so this eventually led to the Dukes receiving technical fouls. That, along with a men’s basketball program that gradually got worse (the women’s team is awesome), ended the toilet paper tradition at basketball games. The streamers were then introduced at football games.
This tradition deserves more love. There’s something enjoyable about throwing a streamer into the sky after a big play, and a sky full of streamers at a sold out game is a sight to behold.
JMU athletics staff usually hands out streamers during the game, but you’re also able to purchase your own at Party City or other locations and bring them into the stadium. If you’re a student, throwing a streamer at the first home game is a must.
JMU fans are crazy
There’s a stereotype among casual football fans that FCS football isn’t the same as FBS football. It’s not the same, but high-level FCS football is every bit as good as Group of 5 football, and the top FCS programs are good enough to compete with a sizeable chunk of Power 5 squads. Presbyterian isn’t going to knock off Alabama any time soon, but North Dakota State owns the FBS, and JMU has three FBS wins since 2010.
While JMU doesn’t pack 100,000 people into its stadium, JMU’s fanbase is still crazy. I say that lovingly. JMU fans tend to be nice people who love their school a whole lot more than the average person. There’s a Facebook group called JMU Nation with nearly 20,000 people in it, and it’s buzzing with JMU talk 24/7. There’s a lot of pride in the JMU sports online community, and there’s also a lot of in-person support.
JMU draws some of the biggest crowds in the FCS, and fans do a wonderful job traveling to road games. There will be a good chunk of fans wearing purple on Saturday at West Virginia, and other road games will all draw their fair share of Dukes, especially in-state road matchups. JMU fans tailgate well, and the home atmosphere is solid.
Students tend to leave at halftime of blowouts, but student attendance is a challenge at almost every program in America. For an FCS school, JMU’s fanbase is tremendous. For any school, JMU’s fanbase is impressive.
It’s Go Dukes, not Roll Dukes
I’m not quite sure when “Roll Dukes!” originated, but the official cheer (or catchphrase or whatever) of the Dukes is “Go Dukes!” Those crazy fans we talked about? They might give you an earful if you shout “Roll Dukes!” They don’t like it. And don’t even get them started on the white helmets with the block “M.” Why can’t we go back to the classic gold, they’ll say. Anyway …
The younger crowds are slightly more appreciative of “Roll Dukes!” but you can’t go wrong sticking to the standard “Go Dukes!” There’s no need to steal a chant from Alabama, even if Cignetti has some Bama ties. It just feels wrong. I’m firmly entrenched on team “Go Dukes!” Anyone who disagrees has likely attended a frat party within the last 12 hours.
JMU football is fun
FCS football is awesome. It might not get the national coverage of FBS football, but it’s fantastic.
You can’t tell me JMU doesn’t have a strong football program because it’s an FCS school. The Dukes are 55-13 since the start of the 2014 season with a pair of wins against AAC squads.
You can’t tell me JMU fans don’t create an electric game day atmosphere because they’re FCS fans. Why do you think ESPN’s “College GameDay” has visited Harrisonburg twice in the last five years?
You can’t tell me JMU fans don’t travel well because they’re FCS fans. When the Dukes played Youngstown State in the FCS title game, JMU fans ended up buying the majority of YSU’s ticket allotment, as many Penguin fans didn’t make the trip to Texas. The stadium was painted purple, and the stadium ran out of beer alarmingly fast. That’s JMU football for ya.
You can’t tell me JMU-NDSU games aren’t as good as most FBS-FBS matchups because they’re FCS schools. When those two teams square off, there are two massive fanbases pitted against each other, and the football never disappoints. JMU-NDSU games earn “must-watch” status in my book.
The joy of being a new JMU fan
If you’re just arriving at JMU as a freshman or a transfer, you’re in for a treat on Saturdays in the fall. If you’re our close pal in Oklahoma, pull out your credit card and subscribe to FloSports — you’ll want to watch the Dukes all season long.
JMU football is fun. It’s not as flashy as a major Power 5 program, but there’s NFL talent on the field, the stadium is gorgeous, Harrisonburg is a great college town and the game day atmosphere shines.
There’s no better time to jump on the bandwagon or to be a JMU freshman than right now. The athletic programs are approaching a golden era of success, and the football program continues to rise in national relevance. It’s a good time to be a Duke.
I envy the freshmen getting set to watch their first JMU football game this Saturday on a live stream in their dorm.
I wish I could go back.
I wish I could tell myself how much fun the next four years watching JMU football would be.
I wish I could tell myself how much excitement a weekly prediction contest from the JMU Sports Blog would bring me as I glanced at my phone during a fall semester GenEd. It wasn’t just the fun of predicting a score, it was the dozens of other people also guessing a score (during class or work or whatever life had in store for them on that random weekday morning) in hopes of earning a guest post on the holy grail of JMU sports websites.
I wish I could tell myself about the amazement I’d feel as I watched thousands of JMU fans flood Toyota Stadium’s field after JMU earned the 2016 FCS National Title.
I wish I could tell myself about the chills I’d get when Ethan Ratke smacked a 46-yard game-winning field goal against Weber State to send the Dukes to the 2017 FCS Semifinals.
I wish I could drop into Dingledine Hall and grab 18-year-old me and say, “Bennett, you have absolutely no idea what you’re about to witness over the next four years, but it’s going to be nothing short of your own personal sports heaven. Don’t miss a minute of it.”
Sadly, time machines don’t exist.
So to the wide-eyed, college-football loving, upset-minded lunatic at JMU today, please enjoy Saturday for me. The Dukes might very well shock you — and the college football world — on Saturday. But as you’ll come to learn, like we’ve all come to learn in the JMU community, a JMU football victory never comes as a shock.
JMU football is special. JMU fans are special. JMU is special.
Savor your time at Bridgeforth. Savor those live-streamed games in your dorm. Savor reading Michael Evangelista’s tweets as you come home after a thrilling Saturday at Bridgeforth.
Today you might find yourself wondering what FCS football is all about. A few years from now you’ll have a newfound appreciation for this level of the game. It sure won’t seem like it now, but JMU football — and the entire JMU experience — is going to hit you quickly. Soak it up.
Enjoy this weekend’s game, and remember the first answer to Saturday’s test — it’s “Go Dukes!”