Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin, Jack Fitzpatrick and Chase Kiddy
It’s Richmond week, folks! For this week’s roundtable we dive into the New Hampshire win, this week’s matchup and Bridgeforth attendance.
JMU plays a massive game Saturday, and a win gives the Dukes an outright CAA title. Per usual, this is one of the biggest weeks of the year. We’re excited.
It’s Richmond week, so let’s start with that. What’s your favorite JMU-Richmond memory?
Jack Fitzpatrick, JMU Sports News: This is a tough one, despite the loss the 2015 matchup was something I will never forget. Gameday coming, being in the marching band and standing on Wilson Steps early in the morning playing the fight song over and over again. Then the game itself just going back and forth endlessly, then Vad went down and so did our national title hopes. So that one is up there but I will probably go with the very next year.
I didn’t watch a lot of JMU football before I went so my knowledge goes back to ‘15. So I’m not pulling from a great reservoir of memories but I think that is okay because of great the ‘16 game was. Another back and forth game but this one ending with Abdullah absolutely destroying the defense on a four-yard run that capped off his 123-yard day. Man, I remember watching that and just thinking, this is going to be the year. It is also when I could say my intense fandom started. I was home for the weekend and distinctively remembering making time in my day to sit down and watch the game and going crazy the whole time on the edge of the couch.
Bennett Conlin, JMU Sports News: The 2015 atmosphere was unbelievable, but I loved the 2016 game in Richmond. I covered the game for The Breeze, and that victory felt like it gave the entire team a confidence boost heading into the stretch run of the season. The Dukes won 47-43 as both offenses traded blows in an incredible game between two elite CAA programs.
I felt like the 2016 game was a perfect follow-up to the 2015 showdown. Both teams showed up and played well, and that game played an important role in the Dukes’ run to a national title. JMU fans also traveled well, making it truly feel like a neutral site game or even a home game away from home.
That passion and electricity told me everything I needed to know about this rivalry. I knew the 2015 game would be intense once GameDay came to town, but having the fans engaged the following season without ESPN hype showed me just how much this game meant to both sides. It was a joy to watch.
Chase Kiddy, Master of None: This is definitely a writer’s answer, so I apologize in advance, but I don’t know if I have one favorite. I just have several that complement each other, and add to the rich tapestry of memories that forms my JMU fandom. (Please insert off-color joke here.)
If you’re making me pick one, I would go back to the Scotty punt return in ‘08. I was a senior in high school and hadn’t applied to JMU yet because I barely knew what JMU was. For most of my teenage years, I had really wanted to go to UVA and eventually practice medicine, but the fall of ‘08 is when I started to feel the winds change. I started coming to terms with the fact that I was actually a pretty talented writer that fall. Around the same time, I saw Scotty McGee at No. 1 on Sports Center one Sunday morning. A few weeks later, I took my first tour of campus. Eight months later, I was settling into frog week.
There are others that are meaningful to me, too — the ‘09 loss with the late red zone fumble, and the crazy ‘16 shootout in Robbins Stadium. But in hindsight, I think that ‘08 game played a part in me ending up in Harrisonburg. What could be bigger than that?
Let’s take a step back. JMU destroyed New Hampshire last week. What’s your biggest takeaway from the 54-16 win over the Wildcats?
Jack: This team is different, just that plain and simple. This Dukes team isn’t on the same playing field as a majority of the FCS and they are locked in and ready to make another run. After a slow start in the first quarter, they erupted in the second quarter and iced the game there.
This team is good and is finally clicking on all cylinders and they finally found Donnie K’s old playbook he left in the Quad tunnels because they are opening things up. DiNucci’s throws are masterful, Percy’s runs are a sight to behold, the defensive line is a monster and the secondary is clicking.
This team is different.
Bennett: The Dukes aren’t last season’s team. While they returned most of their starters, this group looks much improved under head coach Curt Cignetti. The defense remains a strong point, and now the offense looks its best since 2016.
DiNucci limits turnovers and makes smart decisions with the football. He’s playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Percy Agyei-Obese is peaking at the right time and gives JMU a potential feature back if needed. Brandon Polk and Riley Stapleton are electric receivers with complementary skills. The offensive line mauls opponents.
This JMU offense can play, and the defense continues to play like one of the 5-10 best units in the nation. The Dukes are reaching their potential with two games until the postseason. That’s a scary reality for FCS foes.
Chase: JMU is now officially tooled up for the playoffs. I think most observers could have watched those two teams before last weekend and came to the conclusion that JMU is the better team. but last week is arguably the first time that we’ve really seen the Dukes play to their full potential. On our last roundtable, I thought JMU would use the bye week to rest, study up, and really fix their offensive miscues and defensive mistakes. That’s exactly what they did. If they play like that every week, everyone in FCS Football knows what the ceiling is.
JMU still has games left to play, and we’re getting to that part of the season where you absolutely cannot take anything for granted. But you have to feel confident about the Dukes in November and December after an outing like that.
Richmond has surprised this season with its on-field performance. How have the Spiders surpassed preseason expectations, and what should JMU fans expect from Richmond this weekend?
Jack: This Richmond team is a middle-of-the-road CAA team in most statistical categories, they do a few things here and there pretty well, but overall they are just average. Preseason expectations were very low on this team and they have surpassed them, but when this season is all said and done they won’t be in the playoffs and they will probably be right around where they were slated in the preseason rankings.
Richmond has beat up on bad CAA teams. At the time they weren’t bad, but looking back they were back. Their toughest CAA game was against Villanova and they lost by a touchdown. They’ve also lost to a solid, but not amazing, Yale squad and a very bad Fordham team. So I think this team has its flaws and is benefitting from an easier schedule.
But with all that said, they come to Bridgeforth this week with the overall series record tied and a chance to win and have a shot at the playoffs and a share of the CAA crown. Expect the Spiders to try and shut down DiNucci and his receivers, it’ll be tough for them since they just lit up UNH, the best defense at the time, but this Richmond team is first in pass defense, so they will force JMU to win this game on the ground. Overall both teams will play this game up, it is a rivalry, to use the cliche, the air will be electric, the stadium will be rocking and Richmond will be throwing haymakers for four quarters and JMU has to try and withstand that.
Bennett: To put it simply, Joe Mancuso is a good quarterback. I didn’t expect much out of Mancuso this season, but he’s passing well and running at an elite clip for a quarterback. He has two rushing touchdowns in each of the last four CAA games, and he’s passing the ball efficiently.
Having decent quarterback play makes Richmond a respectable squad, and it allows the Spiders to keep games competitive. The Spiders are 3-3 in games decided by 10 points or fewer, which isn’t life-altering, but the three wins are over fringe playoff teams in Albany, Maine and Delaware. Those are three games that could’ve easily gone the other way.
By no means is Richmond a great close game team, but the Spiders are winning enough close games to be more respectable this season. It’s also a sign of growth that six of the team’s 10 games have been decided by 10 points or fewer. They’re using good play from Mancuso to give themselves chances to win. Last year the Spiders struggled to keep games from becoming blowout losses.
Chase: Richmond is kind of an interesting case. The Spiders have been straight-up bad in the non-con, losing to a decent, top-40ish Yale team and a bad, bottom-40ish Fordham team. (A week before beating Richmond, the Rams lost to Stony Brook 45-10.) Still, Richmond has ended up tied for second in the league, first and foremost, by navigating a manageable schedule. The unbalanced conference schedule dealt them no date with Towson, no date with New Hampshire, and a late contest with JMU. That means that, on November 15, you can make the case that Richmond has yet to play a top-three CAA team.
In terms of the football, Richmond has won this year by passing the ball effectively and playing respectable defense. The Spiders’ 155 yards per game on the ground is middle-of-the-pack for the CAA, but it’s certainly enough to keep the offense from being labeled as one-dimensional. The defense ranks right there with Maine and New Hampshire. The passing game actually has ranks in the national top 20, in terms of efficiency.
All that paints the picture of a team that doesn’t necessarily do anything better than JMU, but one that nonetheless will present the biggest air threat since Villanova. I think the difference here is that JMU is not in the midst of a two-month-long onslaught of games. JMU is rested and ready for this game. Add in the rivalry aspect, and you know that JMU is prepared for Saturday.
The New Hampshire game drew fewer than 20,000 fans. Does JMU bringing in a (relatively) lackluster crowd for a big CAA game cause concern?
Jack: Not at all. We talked about it on the podcast some. That was the trap game for fans. UNH was wedged between Homecoming, a bye week, then the largest rivalry in the state of Virginia. So if there was a game to miss it was against a team from New Hampshire. Now, if this draws a small crowd that’s under 20,000 then I would be concerned, but it won’t so we’re good.
Bennett: I don’t think so. The Dukes should bring in a big crowd this weekend against Richmond, and I imagine the postseason crowds will be decent. It’s hard to draw 20,000+ every weekend, and one week of less-than-stellar attendance doesn’t signal the end of the world. Most teams would be thrilled to have the fan engagement that JMU generates.
Chase: No. I mentioned the schedule on the podcast we did earlier this week, so I’ll mention it again here. JMU’s schedule featured three home games and a bye in the span of four weeks. The first game was homecoming; the last game is this week’s rivalry showdown. Sandwiched in the middle was the UNH game. I’m not at all surprised that we had a dip last week. I think Richmond will draw a full house.
Brandon Polk and Ben DiNucci have been phenomenal this season. Do you consider either a CAA Offensive Player of the Year candidate?
Jack: DiNucci yes, Polk no. Polk is great but his numbers aren’t even the best in the conference, let alone player of the year worthy. DiNucci, on the other hand, is lighting things up from an efficiency standpoint. He has top-three total pass yards and is near the top in a lot of the major statistical categories, but where DiNucci really pulls away in the conversation is his efficiency numbers. He is far and away the best QB when it comes to throwing touchdowns, not a lot of picks and getting completions. I think Bennett started it last week, and I will jump on the bandwagon and keep it going, DiNucci should win Player of the Year. #NoochCAAPOTY
Bennett: Polk’s emergence makes JMU’s offense elite, but winning CAA Offensive Player of the Year as a receiver requires phenomenal numbers. Polk’s numbers are some of the best posted by any JMU wide receiver this century, but that’s still likely not enough. DiNucci deserves consideration. His efficiency is off the charts, and his statistics look elite. He’s one of the 3-5 top candidates for the award.
Chase: I think you have to consider DiNucci one. His pass efficiency numbers are Walter Payton/All-American good, and his raw offensive numbers are right there with Tom Flacco and Daniel Smith. I expect him to get some third team All-America votes when the season is all said and done, but there are so many weapons on this team, and Ben has made it look so easy this year, that I fear he could get overlooked during awards season — even from the CAA.
Score prediction time. Who wins Saturday, and what’s the score?
Jack: The first half will go to Richmond, 21-20. Then JMU will show their depth and superiority in every single facet of the game and win 40-24. It’ll be a tough game that is a classic rivalry game and it will feel a lot closer than the final score. But these teams and fanbases aren’t the biggest fans of each other and will want to win and will be going hard all four quarters.
Bennett: The Dukes are the better team in all three phases. Both teams will come out fired up, and I think Richmond keeps it close early. The Dukes faced early deficits against teams like Elon and New Hampshire before winning by 30+ in each game. JMU wins big after Richmond strikes early. JMU 48, Richmond 17
Chase: Richmond plays JMU tight early, because it’s a rivalry game and that’s what happens. JMU gets a couple of scores late to pull away. Dukes win, 34-17.