JMU Football Should Alter Its Strategy Against Villanova

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

We all know JMU football loves to run the ball and stop the run.

Curt Cignetti preaches those two ideas constantly. This comes after three years of Mike Houston doing the same thing. That’s after Everett Withers also saying that, but failing at the stopping the run part. That came after Mickey Matthews shared similar thoughts.

The principle of stopping the run and running the ball has been around since the inception of football. Recently, however, it’s come under fire. Air Raid offenses are all the rage in 2019, as quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes garner the headlines in today’s football-crazed world.

Analytics back up a pass-first mentality. While NFL stats don’t perfectly translate to the FCS level, data supports throwing the ball more frequently at the professional level leads to more offensive success.

I believe JMU’s “stop the run” and “run the ball” philosophy can actually end up hurting the Dukes this season, and if it doesn’t change against Villanova, the Dukes may find themselves with two losses.

Through six games, the Dukes have ran the ball 303 times compared to 142 pass attempts. JMU runs the ball on 68% of its offensive snaps. This stat includes sacks and scrambles, so it’s slightly inflated, but the Dukes are still running the ball more frequently than any team in the entire conference.

Even if DiNucci’s scrambles make up a significant chunk of JMU’s rushing plays, he’s averaging slightly more yards per carry than Jawon Hamilton, Percy Agyei-Obese and Solomon Vanhorse even with sack totals included in that average. I’d argue that DiNucci dropping back to pass is JMU’s most dangerous offensive play.

I also understand that rushing attempts go up when JMU blows out mediocre teams and runs down the clock in the second half, but the Dukes actually run the ball more in close contests. Against West Virginia, JMU threw 20 passes and ran the ball 48 times. Against Stony Brook, the Dukes threw 17 passes and ran the football a remarkable 56 times.

In their two one-possession games, JMU ran the ball 74% of the time. That’s absolutely insane. Again, sacks and scrambles inflate the number, but the Dukes’ level of commitment to the run is shocking.

Against Stony Brook, JMU ran well. The Dukes racked up over 300 rushing yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry on their 56 rushes.

Here’s the problem: JMU averaged 12.8 yards per pass attempt. That’s with three drops on DiNucci passes. He averaged 16.8 yards per completion and hit every receiver on the hands.

Despite averaging nearly 13 yards on every pass attempt, the Dukes only threw 17 passes. That came against a Stony Brook defense that entered the game in the bottom half of the league in pass defense and second in the CAA in rushing defense. That’s nonsensical.

I’m not suggesting Cignetti and company abandon the run. They shouldn’t do that. The Dukes are one of the best rushing teams in the country, and they shouldn’t completely overhaul their offensive philosophy when it’s working quite well.

I’m suggesting JMU alters its offensive philosophy so it works better. Passing the ball more frequently will help take defenders out of the box, and it’s the best plan of attack against Villanova. Here’s how the Wildcats have fared in three CAA games against the pass and against the run.

Towson: 7.2 yards allowed per pass attempt and 5.5 yards allowed per rush attempt

Maine: 7.1 yards allowed per pass attempt and 3.4 yards allowed per rush attempt

William & Mary: 7.5 yards allowed per pass attempt and 2.5 yards allowed per rush attempt

These three teams struggled to complete passes consistently, but when they did, they tore apart Villanova’s defense.

Towson: 14.5 yards per completion

Maine: 11.8 yards per completion

William & Mary: 9.9 yards per completion

JMU’s Ben DiNucci leads the CAA in passing efficiency. Towson’s Tom Flacco and Maine’s Chris Ferguson don’t even rank in the top 10 in the CAA in the category.

William & Mary’s Kilton Anderson does rank in the top 10, and he went 25-33 for 245 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions last week against Villanova. There’s a blueprint to score on Villanova’s defense.

If JMU trusts DiNucci and gives him the chance to throw the ball against a beatable Villanova secondary, it stands a great chance of averaging close to a first down per pass attempt. If the Dukes decide to run the ball 50 times, they’ll likely be forced to sustain long drives against a team that ranks first in red-zone defense and third in turnover margin in the CAA.

JMU doesn’t need to completely overhaul it’s strategy Saturday, but it should try to find more balance between the run and the pass.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Cignetti’s philosophy working. It is working through six games, but it can work even more effectively.

A problem with his philosophy is the team’s emphasis on stopping the run left it susceptible to play-action passing in its close win over Stony Brook. The other issue is JMU’s turnover habits on offense and its inability to create turnovers on defense.

A huge part of JMU’s plan is holding offenses to 20 points or fewer and limiting turnovers. That allows the special teams unit and running game to win the game. Without strong defensive play and limiting turnovers, however, the plan to run the ball 50 times because significantly riskier.

If the Dukes’ defense struggles again this week against a solid Villanova football team, JMU’s coaches need to be willing to let DiNucci fire 25+ passes. Passing can, and will, work against Villanova’s defense.

Will JMU’s coaches see the obvious hole in Villanova’s defense, or will they remain committed to running the ball 70% of the time?

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