JMU Football Roundtable: Weber State Edition

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin, Jack Fitzpatrick and Chase Kiddy

The Dukes beat UNI 17-0 in a defensive battle. The win, which featured very little offense, especially from UNI, moves JMU into the FCS semifinals for the third time in four years. That’s pretty darn good.

Now, the Dukes face Weber State in a rematch of the 2017 FCS quarterfinal game. JMU won 31-28 on a last-second Ethan Ratke field goal.

No. 3 Weber State, much like UNI relies on a good running game and solid defense to beat teams. The Wildcats are a good football team, and Jay Hill’s squad poses a challenge to the Dukes.

JMU beat UNI 17-0 on a cold and rainy Friday night. What’s your biggest takeaway from the Dukes’ win?

Jack Fitzpatrick, JMU Sports News: Am I allowed to keep saying this defense? 

Since allowing the 93-yard to run on the first play of the game against Monmouth this Dukes’ defense has not allowed another rushing yard. In a game where UNI came in knowing they would have to run the ball somewhat effectively to even sniff a shot at winning, JMU just shut them down entirely. Even UNI’s entire offense couldn’t get going. Up until their last drive (which went for 11 plays and 55 yards) they only had 84(!) total yards. 

This Dukes’ defense is as dominant of a unit I’ve seen in a long time, and they do it almost entirely with their front seven. The secondary has shown to be a weakness at times, but it seems to not matter anymore as the Dukes front seven hasn’t been giving opponents the opportunity to even test them.

Bennett Conlin, JMU Sports News: To win championships, teams need to win in a variety of ways. To me, the win shows that JMU can win with offense (see the Stony Brook game or the first half of the Monmouth game) or with defense. That’s critical this time of the year. 

Like Jack says, the defense looks dominant. I’d say there are certainly similarities between this JMU team and the 2016 squad, but there might be more similarities between this team’s style and that of the 2017 JMU team. JMU wants to run the ball (Cignetti and company handed the ball to Agyei-Obese and Hamilton 54 times against UNI) and play stellar defense. 

If Cignetti had his wish, I think he’d rather games go like the UNI victory rather than the Monmouth game which featured a barrage of points in the first half. My takeaway is that this JMU squad can win with defense, which we weren’t sure about after games against Stony Brook and Villanova. 

Chase Kiddy, Master of None: That Curt Cicnetti is not Mike Houston. I always liked Mike (though after the 2017 Doomed Dukes series, I’m not sure the feeling was mutual), and I appreciated his emotional investment in his players and his job. His philosophical approach to balance on the football field and never being overly reliant on one particular element or one particular player is something I’ve tried to incorporate into my own life. I was a big Houston fan, and I still am.

All that said, I cannot imagine Mike Houston winning that particular game the way Curt Cignetti did. I don’t think Houston and his team would have been comfortable playing a game that one-dimensionally. I don’t he’s constitutionally capable of thinking, “you know what, UNI isn’t going to score 10 points. This one’s wrapped. Let’s just kill them on defense, where we have the biggest matchup advantage.”

I don’t think this is a good thing or a bad thing. Coaches are different. They have different styles and tendencies. Cignetti obviously likes to run the ball a little more than Houston, and he has a less theatrical presence in the locker room. We’ve caught glimpses of that all season. But to me, this was the first Saturday of the year where game flow really caused a divergent path. 

Mike Houston and his staff would have beaten Northern Iowa; he might have even beaten them by a wider margin than 17. But the Cignettian approach was very comfortable watching UNI bleed out on their own 25-yard line, and I think there’s something beautifully simple in that approach. 

JMU and Weber State played a memorable game at Bridgeforth in 2017. Does that game have any impact (revenge factor?) on this year’s game?

Jack: It does a little bit, but the glorious thing about college football is that every few years teams are very different. This Dukes team is not the same at all, from head coach to the starters a large majority of them are not the same. However, there is the likes of Riley Stapleton (who had his breakout game against Weber State in ‘17) and Ron’Dell Carter who got a lot of playing time against this Wildcats team back in ‘17. 

There may be a slight revenge factor for Weber State, but to me this isn’t a rivalry (yet) and there isn’t much revenge factoring in. I do think though it will be a smash-mouth semi-final game.  

Bennett: I think there’s a decent revenge factor here, and I place a solid amount of that with Jay Hill, who still leads Weber State as the head coach. He’s an elite coach, and I think that loss lingers with him. 

I think the revenge for Hill is a bit diminished given how much his name is circulating in the search for a few FBS coaching jobs. Much like Mike Houston last season, I think Hill may have one foot out the door already. 

Jack mentioned roster turnover, and that certainly diminishes the revenge a bit, but 2017 isn’t all that long ago. Plenty of familiar faces remain. Weber State running back Kevin Smith Jr. finished with 14 carries and a long touchdown reception in 2017, and he’s a pivotal part of the team’s offense. 

For JMU, Ethan Ratke and Riley Stapleton are among the notable players still on JMU’s roster. There are enough players who played in 2017 and are still on each roster that I do think revenge plays at least some role in this game. I’m sure the Weber State upperclassmen have filled in the underclassmen on how that game went down and what a win on this stage would mean to the program.  

Chase: I’m sure there are a few Weber players still on the team that remember the game, or maybe even were present in Harrisonburg for it, but I don’t think it’ll have a huge impact. If anything, I feel like the older JMU guys that were present in ‘17 know to take the game extra seriously… as if they needed any more motivation than a trip to Frisco.

This game is a showdown between two of the three top programs in FCS football, and a berth in the national championship game is on the line. The stakes are already pretty high. If you need to go back to ‘17 for extra motivation, you probably don’t need to be on the field.

What makes Weber State a legitimate threat to beat JMU? Who are the Weber State players JMU fans should know about?

Jack: After watching them play against Montana in the quarterfinals, I do not think Weber State was the better team to make it to the semis, and I also don’t think they are a real legitimate threat to beat JMU. They have some good pieces to their team, they just don’t have a real offense that can push JMU’s defense, and let’s face it, you aren’t winning a defensive showdown against JMU, in Bridgeforth, in December. As cliche as this is, the cards are stacked against Weber. 

However, the Wildcats do have some great players. One in particular that I have been harping on to watch is their sophomore running back, Josh Davis. He went out early in the quarterfinals with what looked like a bad injury to one of his legs, but he managed to hobble his way back into the game late providing a much-needed spark and a touchdown late. If Davis has overcome that injury and can be at least 80 percent come Saturday be on the lookout for him. More than a runner, Davis is a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, and that may be the secret sauce to put some pressure on this tough JMU defense. 

Bennett: Like Jack says, if Davis can play he’s a threat. I think it’s mostly the Weber State defense. Northern Iowa was down just 10-0 late into the fourth quarter last week. 

I expect JMU to win this game, but Weber State is basically a better version of UNI. The Wildcats wants to play strong defense, win the turnover battle and control the football. Winning a defensive battle against JMU at Bridgeforth is challenging, but it’s not impossible. 

Jay Hill’s team stunk offensively in the first half against JMU in 2017, but the Wildcats stayed close with defense before hitting a few big pass plays after halftime. The way to attack JMU’s defense is to challenge the secondary down the field. If an official gets a little overzealous calling pass interference against an aggressive JMU secondary or if a Weber wide receiver beats a corner down the field, which is possible, the Wildcats could once again hit a few chunk plays. 

Hill and Weber State understand the basic formula to compete with this JMU team, and I think that’s tremendously valuable. 

Chase: Weber probably isn’t the more interesting matchup — I think most of us agree that the Montana offense vs the JMU defense would be really fascinating to watch — but it is the closer equal to what JMU does. Bennett and Jack about Davis and the defense, so I’ll mention special teams here. It’s become an increased liability for JMU as the season has progressed, and Weber has great special teams. This is the Virginia Tech of FCS Football (in case you needed any more reason to want to beat them on Saturday), so the Dukes have got to be prepared to match them in all three phases of the game. JMU has a personnel advantage and probably a schematic one too, but I would hate to spot Weber a special teams touchdown, plus great field position on two or three more drives. I think JMU has the best defense in the country, so It’s not like I don’t think they’re up to the challenge… but good field position for the other guys usually means bad field position for the good guys, and JMU fans shouldn’t want the offense starting on their own 12 against this Weber defense.

Weber can win this weekend, just like it could have won in ‘17. But it’s important to remember how many ridiculous plays Weber had to pull off just to be in position to pull the upset two years ago. That Cantwell throw into double coverage was just gross

Measure for measure, JMU is the better team here in most aspects of the game. If they play up to potential, the Dukes will go to Texas in January.

Who wins and what’s the score?

Jack: I forgot what I guessed the score would be on the pod, so this may be wildly different than what I thought Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. 

I’m going to go with JMU winning this one 27-7. It may be close at one point in time, and as I like into my crystal ball I get real shades of the Villanova game, close until a defensive play just breaks Weber State’s back. 

Bennett: Weber State knows the recipe for competing with JMU at Bridgeforth, but it doesn’t have the necessary ingredients. The Wildcats’ offense looks weak, and they don’t have the same level of quarterback play that they had in 2017. Beating JMU without an elite quarterback requires winning the turnover battle by a sizeable margin. 

That won’t happen Saturday night. JMU won’t completely obliterate Weber State because Jay Hill’s team plays solid defense, but I like JMU to win 31-6. 

Chase: JMU, 20-7. I expect JMU’s defense to dominate another limited offense, but the overall game will feel much more contested. Weber is really, really good. JMU has to earn this one.

Fun question: What’s your favorite play from JMU’s 31-28 win over Weber in 2017?

Jack: Can I pick a non-play? It was early on in the game and Riley Stapleton was having a rough start. He was targeted like three-times or something to start the game and maybe had one catch for like 3-yards to show for it (I could be very wrong on those stats but they don’t matter because of what happens next). Then as Stapleton was coming off the field Houston goes over to him, and from my view in the press box, it looks like he absolutely laid into him for his poor start. Oh, how I wish I could’ve heard what was said because for the rest of the playoffs Stapleton was on an absolute tear and had a three-game stretch that will go down in JMU lore. 

Bennett: Without a doubt the Trai Sharp two-point conversion to tie the game at 28. Sharp had absolutely no business scoring on an iffy play call. He went left and Weber State had the play read well. All it needed was a player to tackle Sharp. 

The Wildcats couldn’t bring the shifty runner down, and the game was tied. 

It reminded me of a heartbreaking 30-23 overtime loss to Delaware in 2014 that ended with JMU falling just short on a fourth-and-one carry from Taylor Woods. He went left and was stopped at the goal line on the final play of one of my first games at Bridgeforth Stadium. This result felt much sweeter. 

Chase: Weber State has the ball with about 90 seconds left, and it’s 3rd and 9. 

I’m not in the box for this game — I’m out in the stands, and I’ve just relocated from field-level to an upper section on the new side to meet up with my friend Jacob for the last few minutes of the game. After Trai’s two-point conversion, I make a remark about how Weber needs to be careful, because a three and out definitely gives Bryan Schor enough time to get in field goal position. 

On first down, Cantwell takes a shot down the field, but overthrows his receiver by six or seven yards. (If he doesn’t, it’s probably defensive pass interference against JMU.)

On second down, Kyre Hawkins makes a great tackle on the outside to limit Weber to one yard on a run play.

Then, it’s third down. Cantwell uncorks one to his tight end, who’s running a little curl/dig just short of the sticks. Weber is hoping he can catch the ball for seven or eight yards, then drag the ball past the marker for a conversion. Who else is in coverage for a tight end breaking off? Jimmy Fucking Moreland, of course, who gets the PBU and forces the punt.

As soon as Weber was in punt formation, I knew it was over.

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