Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin, Jack Fitzpatrick and Chase Kiddy
There’s no JMU football this week, but our content machine never rests.
Bennett, Chase and Jack join forces again to discuss the Dukes. With just November standing between the Dukes and a perfect regular season against FCS foes, it’s an exciting time to be a JMU fan. Should fans expect the team to win out?
We hit on the team’s chances of ending the year 11-1, a recent scheduling announcement and the team’s defensive line dominance.
What’s your biggest takeaway from the Dukes’ win over Towson?
Jack Fitzpatrick, JMU Sports News: The defensive line without a doubt. They took Tom Flacco and bottled him up, sacking him six times and holding him to -3 rushing yards, the first time that happened all season. I really expected Flacco to throw for a few touchdowns, rush for one and torch the secondary, but that defensive line didn’t allow any of that to happen. Every time Flacco dropped back to pass I swear Daka or Carter was already there with a pillow and blanket to tuck him into the sack.
This defensive line is the best in the country and they shut down one of, if not the most, dynamic players in the CAA. It was an absolute show from start to finish, and now the Friday after it, that is still all I can think about.
Bennett Conlin, JMU Sports News: JMU is the best team in the CAA. We knew this beforehand, but it feels more certain now. The Dukes have defeated Stony Brook, Villanova and Towson before November. That’s impressive, and it sends a statement to the rest of the league.
New Hampshire and Richmond provide more challenging tests than we might have expected at the beginning of the season, but both games come at home. Barring a large upset, the Dukes should run the table heading into the playoffs. That all but assures JMU of earning home-field advantage throughout the postseason. That’s massive.
Chase Kiddy, Life Expert: That JMU is not a static team. So often at the FCS level, the team you have on September 15 is more or less the same team you have on November 15. Because of JMU’s elite roster and coaching staff, though, the Dukes continue to improve and repair, day by day, week by week. At the beginning of October, this JMU team was mistake-prone and vulnerable on the back end; a few short weeks later, the Dukes gave up just 210 passing yards to one of the best quarterbacks in the subdivision, in a game where his team had every reason to throw the ball for 60 full minutes. They also came out in the black in the turnover margin.
JMU is finally getting a well-deserved bye before hitting the stretch run. It will be favored to take care of business in all three games, and that’s partially because JMU will be better next Saturday than it was last Saturday. It’s something we probably already knew, but last weekend felt like an obvious underscore.
What letter grade (A-F) would you give JMU through the first nine games of the 2019 season?
Jack: Right now, JMU is a solid B. The last few games I would say they have been an A, but the first couple of games they were a C, so we meet in the middle.
They look solid, and they look like the second-best team in the country without a doubt, I would even hear arguments for the best team, but there is plenty to still clean up. I question Amos as the return man on punts, and I question the punt return unit as a whole. I still want to see the secondary play a solid game when the pass rush struggles a bit and they have to stay in coverage longer than .2 seconds, and I want to see a stronger red zone offense.
I know, I am needy.
Overall, though, this team has VASTLY improved from week one to now. The running attack is cooking with gas and DiNucci has not slowed down from his fast and impressive start. (He still hasn’t thrown any terrible interceptions, DiNucci haters!)
I will say the defensive line is a mind blowing A+. Carter and Daka started the season hot and have only gotten more hot if that was even possible, but clearly, it was. The defensive line as a whole is just not fair. They have speed on the edge that can get to a QB or chase down an outside run, and the two interior guys, Mike Greene and Adeeb Atariwa, eat up anything and everything that even comes close to them. The defensive line has made the secondary look good the last nine quarters and they may have all just found their groove and are poised for a deep run.
Bennett: I’ll give the Dukes an A-, although I’m not far from giving the team a solid A. JMU had chances to beat West Virginia, and it should have put Stony Brook away far sooner, but wins over Villanova, Elon and Towson were all impressive showings. The team has minor flaws, but is the pass defense truly a concerning problem? I’d argue the occasional secondary woes aren’t a sign of major issues but rather a minor weakness that could be a concern late in the postseason. There’s plenty of time to improve that area, and it’s currently improving.
A few weeks ago, I’d agree with Jack about a lackluster punt return unit, but the Dukes have improved to 35th nationally in yards per punt return. In the last two weeks, Amos has returned eight punts for 176 yards. That’s an average of 22 yards per return. For some perspective, only two teams in the country average more than 22 yards per return for the season. He’s finding his rhythm.
JMU isn’t a perfect team, but it’s without a doubt one of the few national title contenders. As Jack mentioned, the Dukes’ defensive line is remarkable. I like this team’s potential to make a deep postseason run.
Chase: B-. This is, flat-out, the most talented FCS team in the country. I think even fans of other teams would recognize that. But, as NDSU fans will gleefully tell you, talent doesn’t win national championships. JMU has been good, and at times quite good, but it’s still evolving as a team. Cignetti and his staff are doing a masterful job improving the team week by week, so that the Dukes are the best version of themselves in December.
Still, I’m going to ding them for too many fumbles, as well as defensive lapses that were much rarer under Houston & Trott. In hindsight, JMU probably should have beaten West Virginia, and it certainly didn’t need to make last month’s Stony Brook game so dramatic. The potential is astronomical here, so a strong season with no FCS losses should be celebrated, but it isn’t an automatic A for me. Graded against potential, the Dukes still have plenty of room to grow.
What gives me hope is that I think Cignetti feels the same way that I do. That’s why this team is still, in my opinion, the favorite to win in Frisco.
Is there any doubt in your mind that the Dukes will run the table heading into the postseason?
Jack: Yes. Richmond is solid and it will likely be playing for its playoff life that game. It already is a rivalry game so that brings out added emotions, not to mention that absolute beatdown Richmond suffered to JMU last season. There is even more emotion for the Richmond players.
I think we as fans and media have essentially glossed over these last few games as a formality before JMU goes on its postseason run, but as the season has played it out, these games are shaping up to be a challenge. Both UNH and Richmond are 3-1 in the CAA and need every win they can get from here on out. Then Rhode Island is going to be a tough game since the Dukes have to go there, and Rhody has played tough all year, four of its seven losses have been by one possession.
Out of the three, though, I see Richmond as the toughest. Coming off the bye JMU will take care of business, and while Rhode Island is tough, it’s Rhode Island and will ultimately lose. Richmond has a lot of memories and kindling to really start a fire for the game and will come out with some haymakers.
So, there will be doubt in my mind until November 24 when JMU has actually run the table.
Bennett: No, JMU will run the table before the postseason. The Dukes get the two toughest teams remaining on their schedule at home. I’m mostly confident in JMU because of the importance of these three games to the players.
New Hampshire beat JMU last season, so the Dukes want revenge coming out of the bye week.
The game against Richmond always grabs the attention of players because it’s a rivalry.
The Rhode Island matchup will be the only game standing between JMU and a top-2 national seed, assuming the Dukes beat UNH and Richmond. That motivation, and a chance at an undefeated CAA season, will have the Dukes locked in against a poor Rhode Island team.
JMU won’t look past any of these three opponents, which makes me believe the Dukes will win all three by double digits.
Chase: I have only one lingering doubt in my mind, and it’s not so much a JMU thought as it is a college sports one — JMU can’t ever, ever look past Richmond. The Dukes have dominated the Spiders this decade, winning six of the past eight, but rivalries are rivalries for a reason. After the Spiders got absolutely mugged last season, they’re going to want revenge in a big way.
As of right now, Richmond is 4-4 with Stony Brook, Villanova, JMU, and William & Mary left to play. Even though they’re tied for second in a top FCS league with a month to go, I don’t see a viable path to the playoffs for the Spiders. I think Virginia’s annual Class Clash might be the University of Richmond’s Super Bowl.
Oh, and there’s this nugget: Dating back to 2004, the road team is 10-5 in this series.
What’s the series head-to-head right now? It’s 18-18. JMU can take a series lead over Richmond for the first time since 1991.
Do. Not. Sleep. On. Richmond.
Which one player on JMU’s team has most impressed you?
Jack: Oh boy this is a tough one. Daka? Palmer? DiNucci? Polk? All the above? I am going to go with John Daka. I was high on him coming into this season but I did not expect this type of production. He has become an every-down player that can dominate against the run and take the game over against the pass. He has nine sacks and two forced fumbles (both team highs) and 16 tackles for loss, trailing Ron’dell Carter by just 1.5. I knew Daka had big-play ability, but what he has done this season has truly blown me away.
Bennett: With Jack taking Daka, I’ll take Ron’Dell Carter. He leads the country in tackles for loss with 17.5, and he’s a dominant force on the defensive line. It’s his versatility that impresses me the most. He’s able to play inside along the defensive line if needed, and he’s also an elite pass rusher off the edge. I believe Carter is the most complete defensive lineman on JMU’s team.
You could pick any JMU defensive lineman for this question, and I wouldn’t argue with you. The entire defensive line looks incredible.
Chase: Ben DiNucci. It’s not just that he’s played like one of the three or four best quarterbacks in FCS. Ben plays a position where the microscope on decision-making is as high as anything in sports, and he’s playing that position on a team that gets regional and national media scrutiny. He had to hear all offseason about how it was time to move on to another player, or how the team was incapable of winning a championship with him at the head. On the heels of Bryan Schor, the bar was so high for him to find publicly affirmed success, and that bar was arguably even higher because of the doubters born from the 2018 season.
Ben has navigated all of that, plus a new coaching staff, like a total pro. We’ve talked about it before, but there’s no way to oversell this. He had a near-impossible task, and he’s totally crushed it.
Fun question: What will you do on Saturday without JMU football?
Jack: I will be working from 2-9 at my new in-between job at a wine store called Wine Dad’s. Nothing too crazy.
Bennett: I’m covering Virginia football. The Cavaliers play at UNC in a key ACC Coastal clash. Thrilling Saturday night stuff, but not nearly as interesting as working at Wine Dad’s! Also, someone hire my man Jack, he’s fantastic at what he does.
Chase: It really is an unusual Saturday for me — JMU is off, and West Virginia played Thursday night, so I really don’t have any teams in play. But Andrew Doughty and I co-host a really solid FBS podcast called High Motor, so I’ll still be focused in on that. We jump on a call Sunday morning and rattle off our reaction to everything that happened Saturday, so I’ll have all the TVs fired up in my Capital City HQ on Saturday to catch Oregon, Memphis, and the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. JMU is off, but I certainly won’t be.
Bonus question: JMU and Virginia Tech will meet on the gridiron in 2025. Any thoughts?
Jack: Wow this is huge. I really never thought we would see this matchup again, but it has worked out and here we go. The next five and a half years will build this game up beautifully. My next thought, let’s get UVA in on it and have a little series thing going on.
But man JMU will play Tech again, and the Dukes really need to win so we can continue saying “We beat tech.”
Bennett: I’m almost more excited for the anticipation than the actual game. Fans can talk about the impending Tech rematch until Sept. 20, 2025!! That’s going to be a blast.
I have no idea if either team will be good in 2025, but I’m excited for the Dukes to get another crack at the Hokies. It’s good for JMU football to have games like this.
Chase: Call me egomaniacal if you like, but I truly believe I’ve done more to mythologize 21-16 & keep it in our daily public consciousness than any other human on Planet Earth. (If you follow me on various social media platforms, you probably know what I’m talking about.) So I’m stoked that JMU finally has a game on the docket with Tech once again. So excited. So excited. Is next week too early to buy tickets for 2025?
I know a lot of people are speculating that the Dukes could be an FBS team six years from now, but I personally don’t care about JMU’s status in the context of this game. If JMU can maintain its current momentum — and we’re talking about six years into the future, so that’s no small feat — the Dukes have a puncher’s chance at beating a Blacksburg squad that just hasn’t been the same since Beamer left.
I really thought that Tech would never schedule JMU again in living memory because it’s such a lose-lose situation. I’m so happy to be so wrong.