Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
I like when JMU loses.
OK, I don’t actually like it, but it makes watching JMU sports more entertaining.
What made JMU softball’s 2021 season so special? Was it the blowout wins over CAA teams who struggled to record one hit against the Dukes’ pitching?
Of course not.
The fun came when JMU played the best team in the country, No. 1 Oklahoma, and was expected to lose but instead won the opening game of the Women’s College World Series.
It was fun when the Dukes battled past Missouri in the three-game Super Regional against a seeded SEC team. It was fun when Odicci Alexander made a diving tag near home plate to preserve a win over Oklahoma State in the WCWS.
The best sports moments and memories are made when the outcome is undecided late in a game. Those pressure-packed moments create legends like Alexander.
In the last five years, very few JMU football outcomes have been in doubt.
JMU is 62-10 on the gridiron since 2016. Three of the 10 losses were by double digits, and two of those three came against ACC teams. Of the 62 wins, 52 were by 10 or more points. Not only does JMU rarely lose, but it rarely plays tight games, which made last weekend’s 28-27 loss to Villanova such a shock.
I think it’s a good shock.
One loss doesn’t take away JMU’s recent CAA dominance. It doesn’t taint the program’s FBS aspirations or really even make the team less of a national title threat. The Dukes will likely be favored by 10 points or more in each of their final six regular-season games. It would take a meltdown of epic proportions for JMU to miss the postseason.
What the loss does, at least for me, is drive home the idea that JMU isn’t a lock to win the national title.
Sam Houston State, South Dakota State, Southern Illinois, Eastern Washington, Montana, North Dakota State and Villanova are among the contingent of teams legitimately vying for a national title alongside the Dukes.
The playoffs should be a treat. JMU will likely play meaningful games in late November and into December. The Dukes might lose one of those important games, ending their season before Frisco.
To me, that’s fun.
That’s where Antwane Wells Jr. can start fleshing out his legacy as one of the best receivers in program history. It’s where Cole Johnson can go from playing the role of important backup in the 2016 season to starring as the team’s unquestioned No. 1 quarterback in the 2021 season.
No JMU fans will talk about the team’s season-opening 68-10 win over Morehead State 10 years from now. Nobody will mention the 55-7 thrashing of Maine either.
But the upset loss to Villanova at Family Weekend might be etched into the minds of some fans because the game down to the final moments. There’s a chance JMU plays similarly memorable games this postseason.
Sign me up for those. I’m tired of the blowouts, which we’ll likely see a few more of in CAA play.
JMU’s 27-17 win over NDSU in the FargoDome in 2016 was one of the most special games in program history. The Dukes’ thrilling win over Weber State in 2017 on a last-second Ethan Ratke field goal is legendary.
Sure, close games can also mean heartbreaking losses — looking at you, Colgate and North Dakota State — but those games make fans feel emotion. Close games are what make sports great because it takes a special play or sequence for a team to earn a win.
Due to some flaws, it seems like JMU might actually have some consistently close games later this fall. That’s good news for this fan.
I’m really excited to see how JMU rebounds after losing to Villanova. The potential postseason field looks loaded, and the Dukes should have a chance to enter the playoffs with momentum thanks to a soft second half of the schedule.
I’m legitimately eager to watch JMU try to become the best version of itself after a disappointing defeat. The Dukes scored on five of their six first-half drives against Villanova. In the final 30 minutes, JMU punted three times and missed two field goals.
By my count, JMU rushed the football on 18 of its 28 second-down plays. In the fourth quarter, JMU faced nine second-down plays. The four passes were all completed and averaged 8.5 yards per play. The team’s five rushes averaged 3.4 yards per play.
I’m not against running the ball on second down, and the strategy found success in the first half. I do, however, think JMU’s offense sometimes becomes too predictable. The team seemed oddly comfortable running the ball in second-and-long, rather than trying to air it out and find some of the team’s best players — Wells Jr. and Kris Thornton.
I applaud JMU’s willingness to attempt fourth-down conversions Saturday, as the Dukes were a perfect 4 for 4. That doesn’t mean there isn’t even more room for JMU to be aggressive — second-and-long passing plays could be a good start.
Minor strategic decisions, like fourth-down aggression or a willingness to pass two plays in a row, could play a major factor in tight postseason games.
As for the defense, the secondary showed some weakness against Villanova. The Dukes have the rest of the regular season — they won’t face an elite QB again until the playoffs due to some CAA injuries — to figure out how to have the secondary play its best football. In years past, turnovers helped mitigate any chunk plays allowed.
Can JMU find ways to be more opportunistic in the secondary? An interception or two a game could go a long way.
At the same time, the unit isn’t broken. The defense has yet to allow 30 points this fall, and there’s an abundance of talent within the group.
JMU is very good, but there’s room for it to improve in a variety of areas. The team has to improve to win the national title.
The top 10 teams in the FCS would make a very solid Group of Five conference. It’s a talented and well-coached group. JMU’s task the rest of the way is to develop to the point where it can break out of the 10-team pack and hoist a championship at the end of the season.
It’s fun to know JMU isn’t a lock to make it to Frisco because if the Dukes do make it to Frisco, they’re going to give us some remarkably good memories along the way.