What to Watch When JMU Football Plays Morgan State

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

After a 44-7 win over St. Francis, JMU football is 1-1. The Dukes face another weaker FCS foe this Saturday, before embarking on the meat of their 2019 schedule.

JMU beat the Red Flash behind 533 total yards, a solid performance from Ben DiNucci and a dominant defensive effort. It wasn’t perfect, but the Dukes were clearly the better team throughout Curt Cignetti’s first win as JMU’s head coach.

This week, the Dukes face a similar challenge against a Morgan State team that is outmatched on paper. The Bears are 0-1, and they haven’t seen the field since an Aug. 29 loss to Bowling Green. Having over two weeks to prepare for JMU will benefit the Bears, but it’s tough to simulate JMU’s size and speed in practice. It could be a long evening for Morgan State.

Here’s what I believe fans should watch most closely on Saturday as the Dukes seek win No. 2 in the Curt Cignetti era.

Forcing turnovers and sacks

Through two games, JMU’s defense has allowed just 20 points. The Dukes are stout defensively, but they haven’t forced a turnover and they only have one sack. D’Angelo Amos, a safety, recorded the sack. JMU’s defensive line is too good to not have a sack through two games.

I’m going to closely monitor JMU’s defense in this game. I expect the Dukes to win big, but I’m going to be looking for more than a win from the Dukes. Can JMU’s defense force turnovers and bring the quarterback down? It’s one thing to control a game, it’s another thing to disrupt an offense by recording sacks and creating turnovers.

JMU still has two nonconference games before starting CAA action, and this week’s game is JMU’s easiest remaining game on the schedule. The defense has another chance to assert its dominance, and the Dukes should place a priority on forcing turnovers and getting sacks. When JMU has been at its best since 2016, the Dukes are turnover-forcing machines. Look for JMU to finally force one this weekend.

Red-zone play

The Dukes are 10-11 in the red zone, but they’ve only turned five of those 11 trips into touchdowns. The other five scores were Ethan Ratke field goals. That won’t cut it.

If JMU wants to win the CAA and make a deep playoff run, it needs to turn red zone trips into touchdowns. The Dukes have four capable tight ends and a stable of talented running backs. There’s no reason the Dukes should be converting fewer than 50% of their red zone chances into touchdowns. The Dukes should convert 60% or more of those opportunities into TDs.

DiNucci missed a couple throws, and nearly lost a fumble, in the red zone against St. Francis. Those mistakes won’t kill the Dukes this week, but they could prove costly in CAA play or in the postseason. JMU fans will breathe a sigh of relief going into tougher contests if the Dukes convert 75% of this weekend’s red zone chances into touchdowns.

JMU’s running back situation

Through two games, walk-on redshirt freshman Solomon Vanhorse looks like the Dukes’ No. 1 running back. Will that remain the case this week? Vanhorse is fast and surprisingly strong. He bounces off tackles and gets through the holes quickly. He’s a quality back.

Percy Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton are also quality backs with more collegiate experience. Will either of those guys surpass Vanhorse as the No. 1 running back this week? Both Agyei-Obese and Hamilton looked good Saturday, and I’m expecting one or both of them to have tremendous games this week.

I still see Agyei-Obese and Hamilton as the team’s best backs, with Vanhorse and Austin Douglas as solid options as well. If Vanhorse keeps running the way he has, though, he stands a good chance of maintaining the No. 1 role into conference play.

With Cignetti on the record saying he’s willing to ride the hot hand, this practice week and game is important. Agyei-Obese and Hamilton have a chance to earn more reps if they play well in practice and against Morgan State. I’m excited to see how the running back position develops, as the Dukes look for a player capable of surpassing 100 yards consistently.

Ben DiNucci’s passing

DiNucci went 16-21 for 221 yards with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions last week. He played well. He also coughed up a ball at the goal line and missed a few passes that could’ve gone for touchdowns. He wasn’t perfect.

Bowling Green’s quarterbacks combined to go 25-38 for 294 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in Morgan State’s season opener. The Morgan State defense is susceptible to good passing, and I’m looking for DiNucci to play closer to perfect this weekend. He’s one of the CAA’s better quarterbacks, and he should feast on Morgan State’s defense.

Keep a close eye on how DiNucci plays in the red zone. He’s been excellent between the 20s, but needs to tighten up as the Dukes approach the goal line. Look for him to complete 70% of his passes and find the end zone a few times in this game.

Editor’s note: What do you want to see from the Dukes on Saturday? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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