Curt Cignetti’s Plan Yields Early Success for JMU Football

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

Curt Cignetti isn’t Sean McVay.

JMU football isn’t going to run a fancy air raid offense in 2019, and the Dukes aren’t going to be considered a revolutionary offensive attack.

The Dukes aren’t flashy, but they look really good. That’s because Curt Cignetti’s football philosophy works, especially at the FCS level.

JMU’s new head coach believes in running the ball and stopping the run. He’s not shy about wanting to lead the country in rushing. He’s someone who believes in power football, play-action passing and taking deep shots when needed. He’s also a firm believer in special teams and the turnover battle. His values are clear, and his philosophy works.

Run the ball

Step No. 1 to winning under Curt Cignetti is rushing the football. The Dukes rank 12th nationally in rushing yards per game after this week’s 336-yard and six-touchdown performance against Elon. JMU’s rushing offense is clicking.

Through five games, the Dukes are averaging 49 rushing attempts per game. Blowout victories over FCS cupcakes help inflate that stat, but the Dukes ran the ball over 50 times in the win over Elon, a ranked conference foe. They’re going to rely on the run all season because they believe it’s the key to success.

Running the ball under Cignetti requires depth at running back. If you’re going to run the ball 50 times per game, you need a few different guys to handle the carries. Depth is one reason why JMU runs the ball better than any CAA team.

Percy Agyei-Obese, Jawon Hamilton and Solomon Vanhorse form a three-headed monster at tailback. This year’s three-headed monster is performing like everyone expected last year’s trio of Marcus Marshall, Cardon Johnson and Trai Sharp to perform. This year’s group is averaging about 150 yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry through the first five weeks. They look strong, and they’re getting better each week.

Freshmen Austin Douglas and Latrele Palmer add depth to the unit, as does walk-on Eric Kirlew. JMU’s backfield is loaded, and the running backs along with the offensive line make Cignetti look like a very smart man. Running the football consistently seems to be a thing of the past with many modern offenses, but the Dukes are content to run the ball down a defense’s throat. It’s working.

Stop the run

JMU ranks second nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 61.8 yards per game on the ground. That’s exactly what Cignetti wants.

The experienced coach wants JMU to run the ball and stop the run. Through five games, the Dukes rank in the top 12 nationally in both running the ball and stopping the run.

The Dukes’ defensive line deserves loads of credit. The starting unit has a ridiculous 20 tackles for loss in the first five games. John Daka and Ron’Dell Carter are going wild on the outside, and Adeeb Atariwa and Mike Greene don’t get enough love for their work in the middle. They’re monsters.

John Daka: 15 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks

Adeeb Atariwa: 17 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack

Mike Greene: 15 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack

Ron’Dell Carter: 14 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 2 sacks

Add in talented linebacker Dimitri Holloway, who has 40 tackles, and it’s nearly impossible to run the ball with any success against the Dukes’ defensive front. The defensive line and Holloway have been so solid that Landan Word only has 13 tackles this season.

Protect the ball

The Dukes have turned the ball over five times this year. That’s an average of one per game. JMU can live with that.

DiNucci has thrown just one interception this season, and that came against West Virginia in the season opener. He’s gone 96 passes without tossing an interception. As a team, the Dukes rank ninth nationally in passing efficiency.

For JMU to succeed in Curt Cignetti’s system, the Dukes need to limit turnovers. JMU wants to avoid coming from behind because it’s a team that prefers leaning on its running game and defense. If JMU’s offense continues limiting turnovers — the special teams unit is the big turnover culprit through five weeks — the Dukes are tough to beat.

DiNucci looks the part of a Curt Cignetti quarterback. He won’t need to win JMU every game, he just needs to facilitate the offense and play efficiently. He’s done that to this point.

The bottom line

It’s still just five games into the Curt Cignetti era, but the Dukes are taking the shape of their head coach’s vision. JMU runs the ball, stops the run and limits turnovers. The result has the Dukes at 4-1 overall and 4-0 against FCS opponents with an average margin of victory of 36 points. That’s not too shabby.

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