Relax, JMU Football Fans: The Dukes are Fine

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

JMU lost by seven points to West Virginia on Saturday, but to some, the score didn’t matter. To some, JMU might as well have lost 200-13 instead of 20-13. To some, JMU football faces a bleak feature after losing by seven points to a Power 5 team on the road.

Well, JMU Nation, let’s take a breath. Deep breath in, deep breath out.

The season isn’t over. In fact, it just started. Ben DiNucci isn’t headed to the bench, nor should he be. Curt Cignetti wasn’t a bad hire. The Dukes are fine. Relax.

But, Bennett, Curt Cignetti is 0-1!

That’s true. JMU played almost exactly to the Vegas point spread in its seven-point loss. If the Dukes do that the rest of the season, they’ll probably end the regular season with an 11-1 record, and they might be favorites all the way through the title game.

Yes, Cignetti lost the first game. Yes, Cignetti was incredibly conservative. His decision to punt on fourth down late in the fourth quarter made no sense, and those defending it likely aren’t fully understanding the math had West Virginia handled the subsequent series intelligently. On the flip side, Cignetti is also an incredibly experienced coach with a good track record of success. He’s going to help make JMU into an FCS title contender and conservative calls down the line won’t hurt JMU as much as they may have in this game.

It’s also important to remember that Cignetti is still growing as a head coach. He was the head coach at Division II IUP before moving to Elon for his first Division I head coaching gig. He learned under Nick Saban at Alabama. That doesn’t mean he is Nick Saban.

Cignetti has yet to win an FCS playoff game as a head coach. He’s still learning and developing even after decades of coaching. Relax. He’s only going to get better as the season goes on and as he truly begins to understand this roster and how they work best together. Give him time to figure out how he wants to best utilize his tools before rushing to judgment.

Mike Houston wasn’t a perfect coach, and he went 37-6 with two national title game appearances. In 2016, JMU got smoked by UNC after one competitive quarter, trailed Maine (before Maine was competitive) at the start of the fourth quarter, barely beat an average William & Mary team at home, came dangerously close to blowing a 30-point lead at New Hampshire in the final 10-15 minutes and outlasted Richmond in a 50-50 game.

JMU’s 2016 team peaked as the season went on. The Dukes weren’t perfect all season, but they won the national title because they got better each week and found ways to beat FCS foes. If this 2019 team improves each week, the Dukes will be in position to win a title come playoff time.

But, Bennett, DiNucci threw an awful interception!

That he did. DiNucci’s interception off a scramble was really bad, but it was his one mistake of the game. If you expected DiNucci to avoid interceptions all season, you’re out of your mind. He made a mistake. He also made a few tremendous runs and hit Brandon Polk and Kyndel Dean on a few perfect throws. He showed flashes, and he made a bad mistake.

We’ve seen this show before, and we know what DiNucci brings. We also know we can’t overreact to one game. Bryan Schor was unreal in 2016, throwing 29 TDs to 6 INTs, but in 2017, Schor threw 26 TDs and 14 INTs. Schor wasn’t a mistake-free quarterback, but the Dukes made a national title game with their defense, special teams and running game. That blueprint still exists.

It’s OK if DiNucci makes mistakes. He just can’t play like he did against New Hampshire or Colgate where he completely took his team out of a game. He wasn’t bad against West Virginia. He made one bad mistake. If DiNucci runs and throws the way he did against the Mountaineers with only one mistake a game, the Dukes will win a lot of FCS games thanks to its running game and defensive unit. Most FCS teams aren’t as talented as West Virginia.

He also deserves time to develop throughout the season. He’s dealing with another new offensive system, and he was without Riley Stapleton, who returns later this month. He’ll help.

Stay patient with DiNucci. He won QB competitions under both Houston and Cignetti. Get used to DiNucci, JMU fans. He’s the best quarterback on the roster whether you like it or not. Instead of nitpicking every error he makes, try looking at him more objectively. He’s a dynamic quarterback who makes a few too many mistakes. The new coaching staff should help him make fewer mistakes as the season progresses. Relaaaaax.

But, Bennett, it’s the same old story with turnovers!

Look, you can’t make the mistakes JMU did Saturday and win many games, especially against good teams. On the other hand, turnover margin is a great problem to have.

There are solutions to turnover margin problems, such as conservative offensive play calling (get used to it, JMU Nation), aggressive defensive calls and additional practice reps on things like ball security. You can’t coach speed, athleticism or raw talent. The Dukes have all of those. JMU’s problems are fixable, and we’re entering Week 2. There is a lot of time between now and the playoffs in late November. The Dukes have time to work on their biggest issues.

JMU could’ve (maybe should’ve?) defeated West Virginia on Saturday, but it didn’t. A disappointing loss doesn’t mean the Dukes can’t win the FCS national title. It doesn’t mean the CAA title is out of reach. It doesn’t mean this season is going to be a repeat of the last.

The 2016 season was fun to follow. Fans had high expectations, but they didn’t expect a national title all season long. Fans followed along and enjoyed each week’s struggle.

They appreciated the grit the Dukes showed to beat Maine on the road after struggling through three quarters.

They relished Taylor Reynolds’ game-clinching INT against William & Mary instead of whining about Schor only throwing for 182 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

The near choke at New Hampshire is viewed as a crucial learning experience that helped the players focus more intensely the rest of the season.

James Faris, a copy editor at The Breeze and a good friend, reminds me frequently that fan is short for fanatic. He’s right. But man, I wish so badly that JMU fans could go back to the beginning of 2016.

Instead of losing your mind about a loss to West Virginia, admire the Dukes outperforming the Mountaineers in several areas. Enjoy watching Solomon Vanhorse, a redshirt freshman running back who scored his first career touchdown in a game against a Power 5 team. Get excited about Brandon Polk carving up WVU’s secondary on a few great plays. Appreciate the journey. It can still end in Frisco.

JMU fans, please, relax. College football is supposed to be fun. Nearly beating West Virginia is supposed to be fun.

There’s a home opener next week against a bad St. Francis team. You can buy a beer in Bridgeforth and watch the Dukes win by 50. That’s fun.

Not every turnover is a sign from God that DiNucci stinks. One loss doesn’t negate Curt Cignett’s fantastic coaching resume. It’s early September. Football is here, and the Dukes have a good team. Enjoy it!

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