Takeaways From JMU Football’s 36-35 Win at UVA

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

JMU football snagged a massive victory Saturday, erasing a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Virginia. In the first meeting between the programs in 40 years, the Dukes delivered a memorable day for JMU fans.

Notably, the Dukes also made plenty of mistakes. They were far from perfect, but they were good enough to knock off Virginia. That’s a testament to the state of the program.

Let’s break down a few key takeaways from the win.

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

Resilient Dukes

JMU trailed Appalachian State 28-3 last season before storming back to win 32-28. Later in the season, the Dukes trailed Georgia State 27-7 before rallying to win 42-40.

Saturday, JMU trailed 35-24 in the fourth quarter. Ultimately, the Dukes made enough plays late to win 36-35.

While JMU clearly has questions moving forward this season, it’s impressive to see the Dukes’ resilience over the last two seasons. Curt Cignetti deserves credit for developing a program that never believes it’s out of a game.

That consistent belief could prove valuable this season, as the Dukes face a more daunting schedule in 2022 than in 2023.

Pass defense needs work

Virginia true freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea completed 20 of his 26 passes for 377 yards and two touchdowns. Both touchdown passes were more than 60 yards long.

On the bright side for the Dukes, he threw one interception and took four sacks.

The Dukes’ secondary (and linebackers) looked lost in coverage at times. JMU allowed 14.5 yards per pass attempt, yielding way too many explosive plays to a young quarterback making his first start.

The passing defense was a problem at times last season for JMU, which allowed Kyle Vantrease to throw for 578 yards and four touchdowns in a loss to Georgia Southern. JMU’s ability to stop the run is outstanding, but most fans would be fine with the Dukes’ yielding a few more rushing yards if it meant more successfully stopping high-powered passing attacks.

If the Dukes want to reach their full potential in 2023, the passing defense needs to improve.

Special teams promise

JMU has blocked punts in each of the first two games this season, with Saturday’s blocked punt going for a touchdown. Camden Wise made his lone field goal attempt Saturday, and Ryan Hanson has proven to be a possible weapon at punter.

JMU’s special teams struggled in 2022, but the unit looks dynamic in 2023. Given the likely parity in the Sun Belt East, a dynamic special teams play or two during conference play can easily be the difference between winning the division again or finishing in the middle of the pack.

While I’d like to see Cignetti more aggressive on fourth down once the Dukes pass the opponents’ 50-yard line, I understand his trust in Hanson and the special teams group.

It’s still a transition

A couple times during the game, I found myself frustrated that some of UVA’s athletes were making dynamic plays against the Dukes. I’ve since laughed at myself of some of those frustrations.

Virginia plays in the ACC. JMU is in its second year as an FBS team.

Yes, UVA isn’t a great ACC team, but I’m not sold that the Cavaliers are some terrible team that’ll go 1-11. They have some dudes!

And yes, JMU was an elite FCS program before transitioning to the FBS. But it takes time to build a roster loaded with top FBS talent capable of competing nationally.

JMU’s 2023 team has strong personnel, but the roster has its limitations. Like 2022, the passing defense has questions. The offense is still building chemistry with new faces.

JMU fans should enjoy the 2023 season without expecting a 10-win season. The Dukes might win 10 games! But they also might lose three or more Sun Belt games, given the talent in the conference.

Saturday’s win was undoubtedly massive for JMU’s program, but I wouldn’t let it drastically alter your expectations for JMU this fall. Just like a loss shouldn’t have changed them massively either.

JMU deserves tremendous credit for making the transition look easy, but it isn’t easy. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see growing pains later in the season.

UVA needs to schedule JMU

Saturday was fantastic.

JMU and UVA fans tailgated together, honored the lives of three UVA players together, and cheered on their respective teams together.

I’m sure there are a few examples of the opposite, but I loved the interactions I had with Virginia fans. I also enjoyed spending a weekend in Charlottesville.

College football needs more fun. I’m tired of the money-driven conference realignment moves. I want college football to provide opportunities to enjoy a meaningful Saturday with friends, and Saturday delivered a memorable weekend with great company.

Fans on both sides seemed genuinely interested in the outcome, even with both teams well outside the national title conversation. I love that about college football.

Virginia shouldn’t wait another 40 years to schedule this game. It’s an important matchup for fans in the region, and the ACC school shouldn’t avoid the matchup due to the fear of a loss.

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