Observations from JMU’s 34-10 Loss to Louisville

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

“This is a pretty simple synopsis, OK?” Curt Cignetti said. “With two minutes to go in the half, we’re up three points, and the last 32 minutes we were physically dominated. And that’s it. Period.”

Well, that’s simple enough. No need for anymore analysis of JMU-Louisville, right? Maybe!

The Cardinals are a good ACC team. They have a legitimate defense that embarrassed a good Wake Forest team.

Is it really a surprise that an injury-riddle JMU struggled to last for 60 minutes against a bowl eligible ACC team? Probably not.

But the Dukes also had chances to keep this game close. It was tied at 10 at halftime before Louisville pulled away to win 34-10.

JMU hasn’t scored a second-half point in consecutive games. Injuries are a key reason why, but there are other reasons why the Dukes struggled against Louisville. Here are some observations from the Dukes’ 24-point loss.

James Carpenter leads beastly d-line

The defensive tackle finished with seven tackles, including three tackles for loss. His motor is phenomenal, as Carpenter never seems to slow down. He’s an incredible bright spot on JMU’s defense, and the Dukes are fortunate that he’s only a redshirt junior.

Carpenter’s defensive line teammates deserve credit, too. Isaac Ukwu finished with seven tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. That’s a stellar game. Oh, and Mikail Kamara tallied four tackles and a sack on only 14 snaps. When he’s healthy, he’s a game-changing young talent.

JMU was dominated up front during the second half at times — a perfectly blocked run led to a 71-yard Louisville touchdown — but the Dukes did finish with 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. The defensive line battled hard, but it’s also fair to say a deeper defensive line with a fully healthy Kamara would’ve stood a better chance of competing across the entire 60 minutes.

Still, JMU showed that its top guys along the defensive front can hang with Louisville.

Even along the offensive front, there were issues in the second half, but the unit paved the way for 117 first-half rushing yards. The Dukes aren’t completely overmatched in the trenches, and that should only improve in a couple years as the program works on adding quality depth.

Centeio looked off

Todd Centeio was 4-15 for 52 yards.

That’s not what we’re used to seeing from Centeio, and it certainly looked like the offensive coaches were trying to limit the quarterback. Is he still hurt?

Centeio is “fine,” according to Cignetti, but I’m not buying it. I find it hard to believe JMU would only throw the ball 15 times if Centeio was fully healthy.

Realistically, the coaches believed a less than 100% Centeio was JMU’s best option at quarterback. When Cignetti points to a need for improved depth, don’t just look at offensive line or defensive line or the secondary. Look at quarterback.

I expect JMU to be extremely active looking for quarterbacks (yes, plural) in the transfer portal this offseason. The offense takes a major step back when Centeio isn’t himself.

It’s also worth giving Centeio kudos for playing with injuries and playing so well this season. JMU isn’t 5-3 without his leadership and ability at quarterback.

Look at the opponent!

I saw a lot of JMU fans wondering how the offense could possibly go cold against Marshall and Louisville.

Here’s a theory: Some of JMU’s best offensive players (Centeio and OL Nick Kidwell to name two) have been hurt, and Marshall and Louisville have fantastic defenses.

As JMU fans, we need to learn to admit when opponents have advantages over the Dukes. Marshall held a major advantage over a Billy Atkins-led JMU offense. Atkins is inexperienced, and Marshall is one of the SBC’s best defenses. That’s such a tough spot for a QB’s first career start.

Louisville has a couple likely NFL Draft picks on its roster, with the majority of the team’s top prospects being defenders. The Cardinals are really, really good. Add in injuries, and it’s going to be hard to move the football against Louisville.

ESPN lists Louisville and Marshall as top-15 defenses, according to its efficiency metrics. It makes sense that JMU struggled!

Third-down woes

Cignetti told the media the Dukes could’ve went 9-13 on third down if they executed well. The team actually went 3-13 on third down. So is he right?

I don’t think so, based on a review of every third down.

First quarter

JMU’s first third down of the game was a 3rd-and-9 at the Louisville 20. JMU ran the ball with Latrele Palmer, a bruising back. He gained three yards, and JMU kicked a field goal.

That doesn’t seem like an execution error. It’s a tremendously cautious decision from the coaches, unless Centeio changed the play to a run.

The conservative call might make sense with a banged up Centeio, but if Cignetti truly believed his team was at a depth disadvantage, wouldn’t you do anything you could to turn field goals into touchdowns?

You likely needed to take total advantage of every scoring opportunity to upset Louisville, and it really doesn’t matter if you lose by 2 points or 24 points. Why not be aggressive on third down?

Later in the first quarter, the Dukes threw a screen to tight end Zach Horton, a major bright spot this season. Horton dropped the 3rd-and-3 pass, which would’ve easily converted the first down. It was a great call with poor execution.

The next third down was a third-and-six rush for five yards inside Louisville territory. The call was fine, as JMU hurried to the line for a fourth-down play, but was stuffed on that rush attempt. I’m OK with a third-down run in that situation, as Cignetti viewed it as four-down territory.

I would’ve loved a QB sneak on fourth down, but is that a realistic call for a shotgun-heavy team with a QB dealing with injuries? Running Agyei-Obese on fourth down was sensible.

Second quarter

JMU’s first third-down attempt of the second quarter was a 3rd-and-10 pass to Horton. It was a poor throw on a check down, and it’s unlikely it would’ve gained 10 yards. That’s whatever, as 3rd-and-10 is a tough spot to convert against anyone, but especially Louisville.

JMU’s next drive finally featured third-down success. JMU completed a 3rd-and-4 to Kris Thornton for seven yards. Later in the drive, a screen to Kaelon Black on 3rd-and-6 went for 20 yards.

The drive ended in a touchdown, giving JMU a short-lived 10-7 lead. The Dukes took advantage of two manageable third downs on the TD drive. They had few manageable third downs the rest of the game.

Third quarter

This call likely maddened fans. JMU’s first third down of the second half went from a 3rd-and-5 to a 3rd-and-10 with a pre-snap penalty. On the long third down, JMU ran the ball for seven yards.

A 3rd-and-10 run is doomed from the start. Hard to fault execution there, although poor execution put the Dukes in third-and-long.

JMU’s next third down was a 3rd-and-5. The Dukes ran the ball for a yard with Palmer. Again, a questionable distance to attempt a run, especially with a physical running back who often seeks contact.

A pre-snap penalty turned the next 3rd-and-10 into 3rd-and-15. JMU tossed an incomplete pass before attempting a 52-yard field goal that came up short. Honestly, if there was ever a time to run the ball for 3-5 yards on third down, that might’ve been the time. JMU trailed 20-10 at the time.

JMU’s final third down of the third quarter, JMU threw an incompletion on 3rd-and-11. Centeio was pressured, and the pass to Thornton never had a chance of being completed.

Fourth quarter

JMU trailed 27-10 by the time it started its first fourth-quarter drive, so the game was essentially out of reach at this point.

The first third down was a 3rd-and-11 that ended with an incompletion. The second third down was an 18-yard pass completion on 3rd-and-13. Centeio rolled out to his left and hit Thornton for a sliding catch. Fantastic play by Centeio.

JMU’s final third down of the game was an incompletion on 3rd-and-5. JMU then punted near midfield, down 24 with about four minutes left.

The verdict

JMU ran the ball on 16 of its 20 first downs. The Dukes were highly predictable. Once Louisville stacked the box in the second half, they stuffed the run to set up lengthy second and third-down attempts. JMU often ran the ball for minimal gains on second downs, again a predictable decision that made life easy for the defense.

Once in 3rd-and-long, JMU didn’t stand much of a chance against a good secondary and an elite pass rush.

So should JMU have been 9-13 on third downs? To me, that’s an unrealistic expectation.

Room for improvement

Yes, injuries have hurt JMU. It’s fair to say the Dukes need time to build depth capable of competing with good ACC teams.

Cignetti deserves a couple years to build out that depth before fans lose their minds over losing streaks. JMU also lost to three capable teams. That happens.

At the same time, JMU could use more imagination. JMU can’t expect to beat every opponent on its schedule by dominating the line of scrimmage.

Louisville isn’t Delaware.

JMU needed to throw the ball on first and second downs more to keep the Cardinals off balance. The Dukes missed key opportunities Saturday, as they didn’t score on their two drives that started in Louisville field position. JMU turned it over on downs and missed a 52-yard field goal.

The 52-yard kick is also a questionable decision with a kicker with a career-long make of 35 yards and a few short misses this season.

Curt Cignetti’s tenure at JMU has been successful. His record across various jobs suggests he’s a very good football coach. He’s also not blameless when JMU loses, and there are questionable in-game decisions and strategic game-plan decisions across JMU’s three defeats, especially the last two.

It’s fine

JMU is 5-3. The Dukes have a good chance to finish with a winning record with ODU, Georgia State, and Coastal Caroline left on the schedule.

The Dukes are still capable of finishing atop the Sun Belt East. There are over a dozen players who the Dukes can build around next season, suggesting a good offseason of recruiting and development could have JMU contending for a Sun Belt title as early as next season, assuming the NCAA allows JMU to be eligible for postseason play.

JMU is on a three-game losing streak, but my biggest takeaway is that there’s no need to panic. Yes, there have been questionable coaching decisions. There have been injuries. There have also been losses.

Welcome to the typical fall for 99% of college football fans.

Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson also experience those things, and fans of other teams experience them in heavier doses. Winning at the FBS level is extremely hard.

JMU has done just fine for itself in Year 1 of its FBS era.

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