Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Game day is almost here, folks. JMU and West Virginia both released two-deep depth charts, the air feels like fall and Curt Cignetti ended his Monday press conference with a mic drop.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed writing content over the summer, but I am so unbelievably excited to finally stop talking about hypotheticals. We’re going to see an actual JMU football game in a handful of days. Sadly, we’re not quite yet to Saturday, so here’s one more massive hypothetical article examining each team’s roster ahead of Saturday’s game.
West Virginia’s offense vs. JMU’s defense
We’ll go offense vs. defense for each section before finally comparing both special teams units. (#PuntersArePeopleToo)
This is an exciting battle, as the strength of JMU is its defense. The Dukes are loaded defensively, with multiple NFL caliber players lining up across the defensive unit. JMU’s starting defensive line is one of the best FCS groups in the country. The linebackers are experienced and talented, and the secondary has a few quality pieces led by Rashad Robinson and Wayne Davis.
West Virginia’s offense
West Virginia’s running backs are massively underrated at the Power-5 level. They’re fantastic. The Mountaineers have talent along the offensive line and good skill players on the outside. We don’t know exactly what quarterback Austin Kendall brings to the table, but you don’t land at two Big 12 programs — he’s an Oklahoma transfer — without having some serious talent.
The Mountaineers might not be a top-25 team at the FBS level, but they’ll contend for a bowl game berth in 2019. It’s a solid team with enticing offensive prospects.
By the numbers
Weight along the lines: JMU’s starting defensive line weighs an average of 264.5 lbs, while WVU’s offensive line averages 317.8 lbs per lineman. The Power 5 team has a size advantage in the trenches. Shocking!
Senior starters: JMU has 6 senior defensive starters, WVU has 3 senior offensive starters
Junior starters: WVU has 6 junior starters, JMU has 5 junior starters
Sophomore starters: WVU has 2 sophomore starters, JMU has 0 sophomore starters
Freshmen starters: WVU has 2 freshmen starters, JMU has 0 freshmen starters
Size along the line of scrimmage: I’m excited for this battle up front. West Virginia’s offensive line features solid talent, and the Dukes’ defensive front is loaded. While JMU lacks Power-5 size on the defensive front, the Dukes’ defensive linemen are athletic and strong.
The linemen don’t weigh a ton, but the two interior defenders come in at around 280 lbs, and Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka are both beasts at the defensive end position. The defensive linemen face a major test against the Mountaineers’ offensive line, and I’m excited to see how it plays out.
Rushing the passer: JMU loves its defensive line. The Dukes want to get West Virginia into third-and-long situations, so Carter and Daka can run wild on the outside. If JMU gets West Virginia into third-and-long situations, the Dukes should have an advantage. It’s going to be challenging to get the Mountaineers into third-and-long, though.
Tackling: If JMU wants to get into third-and-long situations, the Dukes need to tackle well on early downs. West Virginia’s running backs are elite, so Landan Word and Dimitri Holloway need to tackle well at the linebacker position.
If the Dukes struggle to tackle, this game could get out of hand. JMU fans are counting on JMU’s defense being dominant this season, and it probably will be. But will it be dominant in Week 1 against an FBS team? I’m not sold. JMU needs to tackle well to keep this game close. If it does, the Dukes can leave Morgantown with a massive check AND a win.
Stopping third-down conversions: NC State shredded JMU on third down last season, converting 11 of 16 chances. JMU won’t beat West Virginia if it allows more than 65% of third-down conversions. If the Dukes can limit the Mountaineers to under 50% on third downs, they’re going to have a very real chance of winning this game.
JMU offense vs. West Virginia’s defense:
This matchup doesn’t excite me quite as much as JMU’s defense vs. West Virginia’s offense, but there are some thrilling matchups on this side of the ball. WVU’s defensive line is stacked, and the Mountaineers are going to push JMU’s offensive linemen more than they’ve been pushed in a long time.
On the other hand, Ben DiNucci isn’t a normal FCS quarterback. He’s an FBS transfer oozing talent. He’s capable of making plays with his legs, and he boasts an accurate arm. If DiNucci plays well, this game stays interesting late into the fourth quarter.
The Dukes also have capable playmakers at running back, wide receiver and tight end. JMU’s offense likely ends the season as one of the 10-20 best scoring offenses in the FCS, and the Dukes can definitely score 20+ points on Saturday.
West Virginia’s defense
West Virginia’ strength is its defensive line, while its weakness is the secondary. JMU doesn’t have Riley Stapleton to take advantage of the secondary issues, though, which should make the matchup more even.
The Dukes aren’t perfect offensively, but they’re experienced and talented. Liam Fornadel is an All-American guy on the right side of the line, and the Dukes’ running back group might be one of the five best units in the FCS in terms of talent and depth. There’s experience along the offensive line, talented running backs and a mobile quarterback. West Virginia’s defensive line is good, which will test the Dukes’ ability to run the football.
By the numbers
Weight along the lines: JMU’s offensive linemen weigh an average of 292.4 lbs with Gillespie starting and 300.4 lbs with Bethea starting, while WVU’s defensive linemen (including Qualls at bandit) weighs an average of 268 lbs.
JMU is big up front, although it’s an even weight comparison between the Dukes’ interior offensive linemen and WVU’s interior defensive line, which isn’t the case when West Virginia’s offense is on the field. Still, the Dukes have good size along the offensive front.
Senior starters: West Virginia has 6 senior defensive starters, and JMU has 5 senior offensive starters
Junior starters: JMU has 5 junior starters, WVU has 4 junior starters
Sophomore starters: Both teams have 1 sophomore starter
Freshmen starters: None
Can JMU run the ball effectively? The Dukes are not shy about wanting to run the ball. Cignetti wants to run the football down every opponent’s throat, but West Virginia’s defensive line is stout. If the Dukes can’t run the ball well, will they be willing to admit defeat in that area and let DiNucci try to win the game? DiNucci’s arm, and his legs, might be the key to JMU winning this game, especially if the Dukes struggle with traditional running plays.
If JMU can rush for over 200 yards, even if some of that comes from DiNucci’s scrambling, the Dukes stand a great chance of winning.
Will the Dukes’ receivers make plays without Riley Stapleton?
Stapleton is DiNucci’s safety blanket. He just makes plays, especially on average throws. He bails quarterbacks out. Without him on the field, will Kyndel Dean, Brandon Polk and Jake Brown make enough plays to take advantage of a somewhat suspect WVU secondary? To win, JMU needs a few receivers to step up.
What weaknesses can JMU’s defense expose?
Without Stapleton, it’s harder to expose WVU’s secondary. After the secondary, does West Virginia have an obvious defensive weakness that JMU can exploit? I’m not entirely sure.
I think JMU should attack West Virginia’s secondary and trust its receivers to make plays against the Mountaineers’ corners and safeties, even without Riley Stapleton. Dean and Brown are both solid receivers capable of stretching the defense. Add Polk into the mix, and the Mountaineers could get beat over the top once or twice.
Both special teams groups feature talented kickers and quality returners. The discussion about this game always centers around the offense and defense of each team, but special teams matter, especially in a game expected to be this competitive.
JMU’s special teams unit
The Dukes have a strong special teams unit. Ratke and O’Kelly are reliable players in the kicking game, and Amos makes a strong case as the best punt returner in the FCS. Overall, it’s a strong unit with good experience.
West Virginia’s special teams unit
Growden comes to WVU as a graduate transfer from LSU, where he was a decorated punter. He’s a player capable of flipping the field and pinning the Dukes inside their 10-yard line. He’s a weapon.
Staley is money at the kicker position. He’s reliable, and one of the better kickers in the country in terms of accuracy.
The team’s return guys aren’t experienced, but they’re talented athletes. JMU’s Amos is the most proven returner on either team.
Field position battle – Both punters are talented and have good collegiate experience. Field position will play a role in this game, and it could be a battle of the punters from time to time. JMU fans adore O’Kelly, so a punter battle sounds somewhat exciting, honestly. Both guys are from Australia, which makes this storyline even more thrilling. I’m all for a Saturday punting showcase from the Aussies.
Big returns – Can either team break a big return? Amos is one of JMU’s most explosive players, and the Dukes hope he can find space on a punt return to give them momentum. Kick coverage on both sides remains an important part of the college game.
The bottom line
I love JMU’s roster. Every position group excites me. There’s experience at every position, and the team’s defense is going to destroy most FCS foes. This JMU team is more than capable of winning Saturday.
Both teams have good experience, but the Dukes are starting more upperclassmen than West Virginia. We know more about JMU’s quarterback than West Virginia’s, but that doesn’t mean DiNucci is better than Kendall. It should be an even quarterback battle given DiNucci’s starting experience and Kendall’s raw talent.
JMU’s starting defensive line is stacked, but the Dukes will face a massive West Virginia offensive line. That battle is going to be fascinating to watch. Rashad Robinson might be the best NFL prospect on either side of the ball, and he’ll lead a JMU secondary that has the playmakers to force a turnover or two.
Offensively, JMU’s linemen are going to face a challenge unlike one they’ve seen in a very long time. The Dukes need to block well up front against a stout defensive line to keep JMU in the game.
Both special teams units are solid and have quality kickers to go with explosive returners.
In short, this game is going to be a ton of fun. JMU fans shouldn’t expect a win, but West Virginia fans should give the Dukes the respect they deserve. The Dukes aren’t an average FCS team, and this game has FCS-FBS upset potential.
Sorry, JMU fans, but I like West Virginia to win a close one. The Dukes can win this game, but I think they’ll have a tough time running the ball against a good West Virginia front. Without a consistent rushing attack and with Riley Stapleton suspended, JMU is beatable. The Dukes’ defense will keep this game close, but West Virginia prevails.
Final: West Virginia 27, JMU 21