Cole Johnson’s Play the Key to the Rest of JMU’s 2021 Season

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

Coming into the season, JMU football’s offense seemed poised to find balance. With three regular-season games left, it’s clear the passing attack will determine JMU’s fate this fall.

Standout running backs Percy Agyei-Obese and Kaelon Black are officially out for the season with injuries, and the passing attack is simply more productive than the running game.

Those injuries limit JMU’s once deep running back room. Latrele Palmer, Solomon Vanhorse and Lorenzo Bryant Jr. are capable backs. Youngster Peyton Rutherford has promise, and he could see an expanded role with Bryant Jr. dinged up.

Losing Agyei-Obese and Black is a big deal, though. It’s worth noting that JMU’s rushing attack averages fewer than 200 rushing yards per game (181.8), even with Agyei-Obese and Black in the fold in some capacity.

Inconsistent offensive line play coupled with injuries makes it hard to expect JMU to run its way to a national title.

When it comes to the offense, quarterback Cole Johnson and company shoulder much of JMU’s national title hopes. Johnson, who is coming off a six-touchdown performance against Elon, has been superb this fall.

He’s completing 69.7% of his passes for 249.6 yards per game. That’s ideal for a team with an elite defense.

Johnson has thrown 21 touchdowns this season compared to just two interceptions. He also has three rushing scores. Again, ideal for a team with a top-tier defense. JMU doesn’t need 40+ points to win games. In most cases 30 points gives JMU a great shot to pick up the victory.

The veteran quarterback is averaging three total touchdowns and 250 passing yards per game. That’s fantastic.

Johnson holds the key to JMU’s season. If he limits turnovers, JMU probably makes the quarterfinals with ease. If he plays anywhere close to how he did against Elon — Johnson easily earned Player of the Week honors within the conference — JMU becomes a national title threat.

JMU fans have grown accustomed to running backs playing a massive factor in the team’s recent success. Here’s where the Dukes’ rushing attack ranked nationally in recent seasons.

2016 – 7th (273.8 yards per game), won national title

2017 – 5th (275 yards per game), lost in national title

2018 – 25th (194.3 yards per game), lost in second round

2019 – 44th (183.3 yards per game), lost in national title

2020 – 6th (232.6 yards per game), lost in semifinals

This year’s team looks similar to the 2019 squad, which was actually at its best when it let Ben DiNucci throw the ball all over the field. DiNucci’s efficiency was deadly, and the defense was stout.

The 2018 team also didn’t average more than 200 rushing yards per game, but the group was often doomed by inefficient passing. As JMU fans remember all too well, five interceptions from DiNucci led to a loss at Colgate.

Matching the 2019 game plan works this fall. While Johnson isn’t the same threat to scramble as DiNucci, he ranks seventh nationally in passing efficiency.

Wide receivers among JMU’s best players

While DiNucci and Johnson deserve credit for the team’s passing success in 2019 and 2021, the receivers deserve ample praise. Brandon Polk and Riley Stapleton gave JMU two of the best receivers in the FCS in 2019. Antwane Wells Jr. and Kris Thornton form a dynamic duo this season.

Thornton and Wells Jr. have 95 receptions for 1,242 yards and 12 touchdowns. They’re two of the top receivers in the country, and they’re clearly favorite targets of Johnson.

Having a third option step up alongside Thornton and Wells Jr. is important.

JMU has other weapons. A healthy Devin Ravenel helps the cause, and he caught his first two passes of the season against Elon. Clayton Cheatham, a reliable tight end, caught his first touchdown of the season against the Phoenix. Reggie Brown, Vanhorse and Scott Bracey are other potential options in the passing game, as is Kevin Curry Jr. Vanhorse is a running back, and the other three guys are bigger wide receivers. Even tight end Noah Painter has made a few plays as a receiving threat.

There’s a legitimate case that Wells Jr. and Thornton are JMU’s two best offensive players. Given Johnson’s consistency, it makes sense that JMU will be a pass-heavy team the rest of the year.

Abandoning the run game isn’t in the team’s future, but if JMU wins the national championship, the Dukes will follow a different path than the 2016 squad.

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