Keys to JMU Football’s Game Against Virginia

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

For the first time in 40 years, JMU (1-0) and UVA (0-1) will meet on the football field.

There’s no denying the importance of the game for JMU. The Dukes haven’t defeated a Power Five team since Virginia Tech in 2010 and now face a vulnerable UVA team that’s just 3-8 in 11 games under second-year head coach Tony Elliott.

It’s a winnable game for JMU — the Dukes are betting favorites — but it’s closer to a toss-up game than a likely victory. Here a few keys to the game, as the Dukes look to open 2-0 for the fourth consecutive season.

Editor’s note: Thanks to Christopher William Jewelers for their advertising support this season.

Manage the emotions

In-state games usually hold increased emotion, but Saturday’s game will be supercharged.

Saturday is Virginia’s first home game since the tragic shooting last fall that killed three members of UVA’s football team and injured running back Mike Hollins. The Charlottesville community will come together to not only watch the team open its home schedule, but also to support a program that has been through a hellish past 10 months.

For the Cavaliers, they’ll be playing with an incredible wave of emotions.

For JMU, Scott Stadium will be the largest stadium the Dukes play in all season. It’s also the team’s lone opportunity to take down a Power Five program in 2023. It’s an important game for JMU students, alumni, and players. The Dukes would love to dub themselves the best team in the state following a triumph over UVA.

UVA is competing at home after a 2022 tragedy, and JMU is vying for national/regional relevancy. I’m not comparing the legitimacy of those two reasons for emotion, but I am expecting both sides to be particularly energized about Saturday’s game.

The team that best manages their high emotions will be poised to emerge with a win.

Find decent quarterback play

UVA starting quarterback Tony Muskett suffered a left-shoulder injury late against Tennessee, and his status for Saturday’s game is up in the air. Jay Woolfolk likely would’ve been QB2 for the Cavaliers, but he decided to focus on his baseball career rather than returning to the football team this fall.

That leaves UVA with true freshman Anthony Colandrea as QB2. The youngster shined in the team’s spring game, but is undersized and lacks experience. Colandrea’s potential is bright, but is he ready for the starting role if Muskett can’t go?

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The same question can be asked of JMU’s redshirt freshman Alonza Barnett III. Barnett struggled in his starting debut against Bucknell, but redshirt senior transfer Jordan McCloud came in during the second half and moved the offense nicely down the field.

McCloud will start Saturday for JMU, which will be the 20th start of his college career.

Both teams have significant questions at the position after Week 1, as UVA deals with injury and depth issues and JMU comes into this week off a lackluster passing performance. If either side has efficient quarterback play Saturday, it could lead to a huge advantage.

Win the line of scrimmage

Virginia’s offensive line was horrendous against Tennessee, giving up four sacks. At times, the group generated some push in the running game, but it was hardly consistent.

JMU’s starting defensive line is a solid unit, but defensive end Abi Nwabuoku-Okonji suffered a serious injury against Bucknell and JMU lacks depth along the defensive front. Can the starting unit take advantage of a shaky Virginia offensive line?

JMU’s offensive line is a position of strength, and the Dukes averaged more than six yards per carry against Bucknell. The pass protection was solid for much of the season-opening win as well.

UVA’s defensive line is also an area of strength, as the Cavaliers have multiple All-ACC caliber players along the front. Chico Bennett didn’t play against Tennessee, but the dynamic defensive end could return this week. The Cavaliers defensive front will be one of the better units JMU faces this fall, even if Bennett sits.

If JMU can handle the line of scrimmage, the Dukes have a good chance of winning the game. If the Dukes don’t take advantage of Virginia’s weak offensive line, the Cavaliers’ talented running backs and wide receivers (Malachi Fields is a matchup nightmare) can exploit the Dukes’ defense.

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