JMU Football Roundtable: Villanova Edition

Image courtest of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin, Jack Fitzpatrick and Chase Kiddy

JMU welcomes a top-5 opponent to town in what is a crucial midseason CAA matchup. Bennett, Jack and Chase break down the Stony Brook game and this week’s showdown in our weekly roundtable discussion.

It took overtime for JMU to beat Stony Brook last week. Does that close call change your perception of this JMU team as CAA play intensifies?

Jack Fitzpatrick, JMU Sports News: That close call doesn’t change my perception one bit. I still think that JMU is the team to beat in the CAA and they are still the second-best team in the FCS behind (of course) North Dakota State. 

We talked about it on the podcast, but I’ll say it again here because it is worth repeating. This game reminded me A LOT of the ‘16 and ‘17 games against Richmond. Tough, slug it out games that came down to the very end. After those games we, as a JMU fan base, didn’t knock JMU for going to the wire with the Spiders, rather it was the opposite. We commended them for battling and pulling out a tough win. 

This game shouldn’t have been close, and watching the game live, and then rewatching it for some film study for the defense, it reinforced what I was thinking the whole game. JMU was the superior team, in every facet. If it wasn’t for five fumbles, three of them lost, and an interception, JMU wins that game by 20+. (Don’t get me started on some of the missed calls, because woah @CAARef was in full effect.)

(Also, how is this not a penalty? Because I don’t think it was called. But I digress …) 

What this game showed is that Stony Brook is a tough team with plenty of grit and determination (I know, cue the cliche, but man it is true) and because they play such a similar style of football to the Dukes, it lends itself to closer-than-expected games. This matchup is now a rivalry, the Seawolves don’t like JMU and vice versa, so when the Dukes go out and play the Seawolves it’s going to be a tough game. 

Granted, I think this JMU team has a turnover problem from some unlikely sources in the running backs, and I’m left questioning the secondary even more than I was just five days ago, but overall my perception hasn’t changed. 

You can buy your tickets to Frisco now because JMU will still be there come January. 

Bennett Conlin, JMU Sports News: My perception doesn’t change dramatically. We knew JMU’s secondary was its weakness coming into the Stony Brook game, but we didn’t know it was that much of a weakness. 

The Seawolves easily picked apart the Dukes’ defense, and the corners and safeties looked lost at times. They missed Rashad Robinson, but I’m not sure this is as simple as that. Robinson returning will help tremendously, but one player can’t change the fact that the Dukes were out of position quite a bit. It was a team-wide problem. 

I still like this JMU team. The Dukes’ offense is fantastic, and offensive lines across the country fear playing JMU’s defensive front. If the secondary gradually improves, JMU can make a deep playoff run. 

I sure as heck wouldn’t buy Frisco tickets yet, but it’s not time to hit the panic button either. 

Chase Kiddy, Gambler Extraordinaire, Late to Submit His Roundtable Answers, Breeze Mafia Member: Not really. Maybe a little. Yes. But no. But kind of?

I’ve spent all week trying to decide how to grade last week’s game. Was it too many turnovers? Horrifying officiating, even by CAA standards? Stony Brook’s uncharacteristic offensive aggression? Poor pass defense?

The answer, of course, is that it’s a little bit of all that, so it’s almost not even worth trying to parse which narrative deserves top billing. Last week, the three of us talked about how pass defense and turnover margin were the two weaknesses for this team, and both of those were major factors on the north shore. Still, this feels like a non-repeatable set of circumstances… but I said the same thing after the New Hampshire game last year, too. Hopefully, three months from now, this game draws comparison to the 2016 UNH game, not the 2018 one.

JMU’s offensive line looks dominant through a pair of conference games. What’s the biggest difference you’ve seen in this unit from last year to this season?

Jack: Without a doubt it is continuity. Everything positive they have been able to do this season comes from the fact they have all been playing together for a few years now and there has not been any major injuries to anyone on the line. 

JMU has played two different lines and almost rotates the lines through the game. Their main switch as games continue, and depending on the situation, is the left tackle spot. They have used Raymond Gillispie and Zaire Bethea in that spot and that little rotation seems to be working really well. 

While we are on that topic, I highly recommend checking out this graphic from @STEELCITYBALL3R on Twitter. This offensive line is as dominant as it was during the 2016 national championship run. They are controlling the trenches and absolutely obliterating opposing defenses off of the line of scrimmage. They look like an FBS line week in and week out. 

It all comes back to continuity. They have played with two different lines this season and going back to the start of last season, they have used just five different combinations in their starting lineups. This is a veteran group that has played together for a long time. When it comes to offensive lines, time is one of the most important variables and this line has a lot of time as one unit and that is why they are one of the best o-lines in the FCS this season. 

Bennett: Offensive line coach Damian Wroblewski deserves a lot of credit. I agree with Jack that continuity and health play major roles in the success of this offensive line, but let’s not forget about Wroblewski’s impact. He has the Dukes playing with a different edge than last season, as the offensive line looks consistently dominant at the point of contact for the first time since the 2016 season. 

Wroblewski found success at Rutgers earlier in his career, which isn’t the easiest thing to do, and he did tremendous work with Elon’s offensive line. He’s helped build JMU’s unit into one of the most forceful lines in the country. 

He deserves credit for the success, and JMU’s overall talent on the offensive line is impressive. All of the team’s starting linemen are playing at an All-CAA caliber level. It’s a talented group with a great coach. That leads to solid results. 

Chase: Unit cohesion. One of the things I really tried to get my teeth into last year was why it felt like the offensive line play didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. That feels different this year, where the offensive line is arguably the best unit on the team — and given how good the D-Line is that, that’s really saying something.

Coach Wroblewski has done an excellent job, but I’m hesitant to put it all on coaching. Steve Shankweiler was the run game coordinator in ‘18, and even though it was his first year with the team, I always thought really highly of him in that job. I think this is more about the players, who are a year older in ‘19, and just really seem to fit way better this year.

Villanova enters this week’s game 6-0 and is one of the surprise teams of the FCS. What should fans know about this Wildcats team heading into Saturday’s pivotal matchup?

Jack: There are two things that make Villanova a very solid FCS program this year. No. 1 is their new quarterback Daniel Smith. Smith is a transfer from Campbell and he has brought consistency to a position that had lacked that for awhile. 

Smith is by no means a gunslinger and he isn’t going to awe you with his arm talent and ability to make amazing plays, but he is the quarterback that Villanova needed and wanted. The Wildcats are a run-first team, they are third overall in rushing yards per game in the CAA. All they needed was a game manager at QB, and that is what Smith is. He is statistically average and ranks in the middle third of every major QB statistical category in the CAA. But that consistency and veteran leadership has really provided some juice to Villanova. 

No. 2: Their new defensive coordinator. Over the offseason Mark Ferrante promoted then special teams/defensive backs coach Ola Adams to defensive coordinator. On the “Walkthrough Podcast” with Greg Madia, Villanova senior linebacker Drew Wiley talked about how that change has created a real spark for the Wildcats defense. Now they are a ball focused defense that rallies to the ball, and things have really turned around for them. 

So JMU fans, keep an eye on Daniel Smith and the Wildcats defense making plays. 

Bennett: JMU fans should know that the Wildcats are legitimate. Like Jack mentioned, Smith is a quality quarterback and the Wildcats play great defense. 

Villanova ranks second in the CAA in scoring offense, third in rushing offense and third in rushing defense. The Wildcats play consistent, quality football. 

Most impressively, Villanova is the only 6-0 team in the FCS. The Wildcats are 3-0 in the CAA with wins over Towson, Maine and William & Mary. The Wildcats have a legitimate case that they’re the most impressive team in the CAA. JMU returns home from its three-game road trip and gets rewarded with a challenging test against one of the best teams in the league. 

I also think I’m a bit higher on Smith than Jack. The junior quarterback averages 238 yards per game, and he has 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions. I’ve been impressed with his mobility and arm strength. 

I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and deserves to be in the conversation with players like Ben DiNucci and Davis Cheek. To me, he’s capable of being more than just a game manager. He’s thrown for at least three touchdowns in five of six games this season, and he’s an elite offensive weapon. If running back Justin Covington is able to play through an ankle injury, JMU’s defense will face its toughest test since West Virginia.

Chase: Fans should know that Villanova is good, but this isn’t the same sort of good Villanova team we often saw under Andy Talley for so many years. When I think of Nova Football, I think of tight defense first, methodical offense second. When Villanova won the national championship in 2009, it only allowed opponents to exceed 20 points four times in 15 games. (One was its FBS game with cross-town Temple, which the Wildcats won; one was a loss at No. 5 New Hampshire; one was a game with Holy Cross; the last was the title game with Montana.)

Anyway, my point is that I associate Villanova with a particular brand of defensive football. And this Villanova team is pretty good on defense — many of their metrics rank in the top 20 for FCS Football — but I think this team is more built on its offense. Daniel Smith is the real deal and should probably be in the conversation for the Walter Payton award. Villanova’s game plan will certainly be to challenge JMU’s secondary downfield, then use the pass game to set up the run. I don’t expect a defensive scrum.

After three games on the road, JMU returns home. How much do you think home-field advantage benefits JMU in Saturday’s game?

Jack: This is homecoming part I. This isn’t the fans’ homecoming, but rather the team’s homecoming. They are going to be amped, they are coming back to Bridgeforth after being away for almost a month, and the stadium is going to be truly 25,000 strong with the sell out. 

I think JMU fans will be rowdy and loud for at least two quarters, and JMU will feed off the energy. I don’t think Villanova squad has experienced an atmosphere quite like this during this season. 

So to wrap up this quick thought, homefield advantage is going to be HUGE in the game Saturday. 

Bennett: If JMU faced another road game, I think the Dukes would’ve lost this game. Playing at home is critical. Not only will crowd noise play a factor, but JMU is 24-1 at home since the start of the 2016 season. 

Coming into Bridgeforth Stadium and winning poses a tremendous challenge to every CAA team. The Wildcats are a good road team with wins over Colgate, Towson and William & Mary this season. Those atmospheres don’t compare to mid-October Saturday sellouts at Bridgeforth. 

Chase: I think that first October Bridgeforth game is always pretty rowdy. It’s no secret that JMU opts for glorified scrimmages to fill its home September schedule, so when early October rolls around, JMU alumni and fans are finally treated to a home game that matters. That feels magnified this year, because of the three-game road set, as well as the redemption that a lot of fans and players might be seeking after an underwhelming 2018. Pour in a little fresh stadium beer, and I expect BFS to be absolutely rocking on Saturday.

Who wins Saturday? Share a score prediction and your reasoning. 

Jack: JMU wins this Saturday by at least two touchdowns. JMU is going to control the game from start to finish and the final outcome will never be in doubt. The Dukes are going to play up to the situation and really feed off the raucous Bridgeforth crowd.

JMU knows Villanova is shaky against the pass and we will see DiNucci get the opportunity to put it in the air a little more than usual. Rashad Robinson will (hopefully) be back and that will make the secondary look good once again. I have full faith that the coaching staff has created the perfect gameplan to really exploit this Villanova defense and let the D-line cook. 

So I think JMU wins this one 31-17. Bonus prediction, JMU won’t turn the ball over and will force two interceptions and one forced fumble. 

Bold, I know, but I’m going all in. 

Bennett: Villanova is better than people think, and the Wildcats can score in a variety of ways. Running back Justin Convington is battling an ankle injury, which really hurts Villanova’s chances. I expect Daniel Smith to find ways to exploit JMU’s secondary, but I also expect the Dukes to move the ball effectively and play slightly better against the pass this week. 

JMU wins 41-28. 

Chase: Maybe it’s because I have contrarian tendencies from my gambling background, or maybe it’s because I love the matchup for JMU, but I think the Dukes are going to throttle Villanova this weekend. Nova’s three-man front gives it a ton of coverage flexibility and exotic blitz potential, but it’s also susceptible to getting mashed by an offensive line that’s as good as JMU. When Villanova makes adjustments to pull one or two extra defenders into the box, Cignetti is going to have the quick passing game and play action to lean on. 

Daniel Smith is going to make one or two outstanding plays before it’s all said and done, but I think everything about this weekend favors JMU — the X’s and O’s, the homecoming, the close call with Stony Brook. Everything. Give me the Dukes, 45-24, over a really good Villanova team. This pick isn’t about Villanova being bad at all… it’s just a great spot for JMU. The Wildcats will bounce back and end up with a playoff seed.

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