Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Since 2016, I’ve considered JMU’s FCS playoff run to have officially started when one of two things occur. 1) Either the team reaches the quarterfinals or 2) the Dukes play Colgate. Friday night on ESPN2, JMU’s playoff run officially begins as far as I’m concerned. Thankfully, Colgate isn’t on the schedule.
Yes, JMU played a high-powered SLU (not SELA, I’ve learned) offense in the second round. It was a real game and a real playoff win, but if you’re a team with legitimate national title hopes, you have to take care of business at home against a team like SLU. JMU did just that, winning 59-20.
The quarterfinals typically signal a major step up in competition.
I’d argue the gap between the second round and quarterfinals is larger than that between the quarterfinals and semifinals. Montana is a much more complete team than SLU. The gap between Montana and a team like North Dakota State isn’t as seismic. It’s hard, if not impossible, to fluke your way into the quarterfinals, especially this year. The eight teams left are good.
JMU is one of those impressive teams still playing, and the Dukes are every part of a national title contender. To win the national championship, they’ll need to pick up three fantastic wins, starting Friday night against Montana.
Scouting the Grizzlies
Head coach Bobby Hauck is one of the best at the FCS level. He coached Montana from 2003-09 and returned in 2018. He struggled during a five-year run as UNLV’s head coach, but he’s 108-28 during his time at Montana.
Hauck has a background as a special teams coach, which feels noteworthy when discussing the Grizzlies. Montana blocked a punt against Eastern Washington last week, and the Grizzlies have three blocked kicks on the year. The Grizzlies also have a pair of kickoff return touchdowns this season from Malik Flowers, who is one of the top return men in college football.
Keep an eye on Junior Bergen. He’s a dangerous punt returner, running back, and wide receiver. He plays well on special teams and offense. Also offensively, wide receiver Samuel Akem has a knack for finding the end zone. He has seven receiving touchdowns this year, including two last weekend. The Grizzlies aren’t the most explosive offense in the country — Montana averages 31.6 points per game — but the group is competent.
Defense and special teams are where Montana thrives.
Defensively, the Grizzlies allow just 15.6 points per game. Eastern Washington threw for 530 yards against Montana, but Eric Barriere needed 80 passes to hit that mark. That’s an average 6.6 yards per passing attempt, which isn’t remarkable. For comparison, JMU’s Cole Johnson was stellar last weekend against SLU. He averaged 14.6 yards per pass attempt.
The Grizzlies have a few defenders with elite credentials. The same wasn’t true of SLU.
Robby Hauck, the head coach’s son, leads the team with 117 tackles. The safety is a tackling machine for the Grizzlies. Linebacker Patrick O’Connell is another guy to watch. He’s recorded 99 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, and four forced fumbles. He’s a game changer.
JMU will have success if …
If the Dukes win the turnover battle and get the ball into the hands of their playmakers, I like their chances. JMU leads the country in turnover margin (+21) thanks to stellar defense, and a veteran quarterback who doesn’t make many mistakes.
Johnson doesn’t often throw interceptions, but he’s been more than just a game manager this fall. Johnson has 37 touchdown passes compared to just two interceptions. If the offensive line gives him time, Johnson picks apart opposing defense.
Wide receivers Antwane Wells Jr. and Kris Thornton are as good a receiving duo as any in the FCS. They caught eight passes for 195 yards and four touchdowns against SLU. The Lions simply couldn’t cover JMU’s receivers.
This Friday’s game will be a tougher test, but JMU is playing at home, and the Dukes have played elite football the last few games. There’s a reason JMU is about a touchdown favorite Friday night.
Beating Montana is no guarantee, but the Dukes are good enough to punch their ticket to the FCS semifinals. Friday night’s game should be a treat, as two historically successful FCS programs battle on national TV.