Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
JMU football begins postseason play Saturday afternoon when it hosts VMI. The Keydets have been one of the best stories of the season, making the FCS playoffs for the first time in program history.
The story is fantastic, but VMI is more than just a fun FCS story. The Keydets are legit, and if JMU plays like it did in the first few weeks of the season, the Dukes could see their year end Saturday.
Saturday figures to be fun, and I’m thankful for the return of postseason play.
Here are three keys to JMU’s playoff game against VMI.
Who manages the weather best
Saturday’s forecast is … not great.
*JMU fans start screaming that it’s actually perfect football weather.*
For some, temperatures in the mid-50s with rain is fun football weather. For others, it’s not ideal, especially for a late April matchup.
Regardless, it seems like the weather has a chance to impact the game. It’s worth noting that some forecasts have the rain arriving after the 2 p.m. kickoff. Any additional delay in when the rain arrives could result in the game being played without rain, making this point a complete waste of time!
Based on the latest projections, it does seem like there will be rain, especially in the second half. On paper, that seems like it could benefit JMU.
The Dukes enjoy holding onto the football, they rank 12th nationally in time of possession, and playing stout defense. JMU wants to run the ball, limit mistakes and control the game.
VMI, on the other hand, uses an Air Raid offensive attack and often operates using tempo. The Keydets still rank in the top half of the FCS in time of possession, but ball control is less of a goal for VMI.
Could the weather help the Dukes? How will the Air Raid function if it’s pouring rain? I’m interested to see how much weather impacts Saturday’s contest. There’s a chance the weather arrives later, which could be a huge break for VMI.
JMU’s secondary vs. VMI’s high-powered offense
Four of JMU’s five games this spring have come against FCS teams that rank in the bottom half of the nation in passing yards per game. VMI checks in at No. 9, throwing for 312.7 yards per contest. The Keydets have thrown 15 touchdowns compared to three interceptions.
Clearly, VMI is the best passing offense JMU has faced this spring. It’s a great test for a JMU team that ranks sixth nationally in passing yards allowed per game, only yielding 130.2 yards per game. Is that because the defense is elite or because the opposing quarterbacks aren’t great?
The truth may lie somewhere in between. In conference games, both Elon and William & Mary faced the Dukes without their usual starting quarterbacks. Richmond’s Joe Mancuso struggled, which seems like a good sign for the Dukes’ defense, but they haven’t been tested often by opposing passing attacks.
Jakob Herres, a 6-foot-4-inch receiver, averages 115.3 yards per game. That’s the third best mark in the entire FCS. He’s a matchup problem, and averages a touchdown catch per game. JMU’s defensive backs haven’t seen a receiver as consistent and reliable as Herres all spring.
VMI can score, and while weather might be a factor that limits the passing game, the Keydets still possess the weapons and scheme to give JMU fits. The Dukes need to be excellent with their pass rush and coverage.
JMU has won it’s last two games by a combined score of 61-16 and Cole Johnson hasn’t thrown an interception in either. That’s no coincidence.
With its running game and defense, the Dukes can beat teams without being flashy. They don’t need Johnson to throw for three touchdowns or rush for 100 yards. They just need him to complete 60-70% of his throws and hopefully approach the 200-yard mark through the air. He’s done that in recent weeks, finding receivers and helping JMU move the ball down the field.
When Johnson and teammates don’t make mistakes, the Dukes are tough to beat.
JMU is more talented than VMI. The Dukes have more NFL caliber players on the roster, and the team’s overall speed, size and strength is better than VMI’s. The Keydets are no slouch, but JMU is one of the best teams in the nation.
If JMU wins the turnover margin, it’s going to be hard for VMI to win. JMU needs to execute and score points, but the main focus should be to avoid critical errors that plagued the team early this season.