JMU Football Roundtable: Dukes Visit Troy for Massive SBC Showdown

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin and Jack Fitzpatrick

JMU’s 2023 football season is off to a stellar start, with the Dukes beating UVA 36-35 in a game that JMU fans will remember for a long time.

The Dukes don’t have long to celebrate that victory, as they’re quickly faced with one of the biggest challenges of the season. JMU hits the road to face the reigning Sun Belt champion, Troy.

Winning Saturday would mean the Dukes start September with season-defining wins over Virginia and Troy. If the Dukes do that, they could secure a spot inside the AP Top 25 before the month ends. Saturday presents a huge opportunity for JMU’s program.

Bennett and Jack sat down to discuss the Dukes’ win last weekend and what to expect this weekend in the heavyweight bout with Troy.

Editor’s note: Thanks to Three Notch’d Brewing for their advertising support this fall.

JMU defeated UVA last weekend, a memorable weekend for JMU fans, players, and coaches. What’s your biggest takeaway from the victory?

Bennett: JMU is ready for the big stage. I know UVA isn’t an elite ACC team, but the Dukes now have wins over App State, Coastal Carolina, and UVA since moving up to the FBS. That’s a big time start to the FBS era. 

Perhaps most impressively, JMU didn’t play its “A game” against Virginia and still won on the road. The Dukes’ passing defense was atrocious, the tackling was iffy, and the offense stalled for the second and third quarters. Still, JMU found a way to beat an ACC opponent. 

JMU’s program has ample room to grow and develop, and the early stages of the FBS era suggest the Dukes are poised to become one of the most dangerous programs at the Group of Five level. 

Jack: JMU is the best team in Virginia, and quite honestly I don’t think it is close. Look Virginia Tech fans can whine all they want as they jump up and down to ‘Enter Sandman’ to watch their team lose another ACC game to another bad ACC team. JMU fans can sing ‘Can’t Hold Us’ for the 15th straight year after that song left the Billboard Top 100 loud and proud because this last Saturday made me fully accept JMU is, and will be for the foreseeable future, the flagship program in Virginia.

I mean, this team according to Curt Cignetti played a C+ game. That C+ game saw the Dukes hang up 36 points, hold a Power 5 team to under 20 rush yards ALL GAME and win in an epic thriller.

On a less hype note, this game also showed me that this team is like past Cignetti led teams. Man, do they go dry spells that last a long portion of game time.

All in all — JMU IS THE FLAGSHIP PROGRAM IN VIRGINIA BABY!!!!!

Plenty of Dukes stepped up Saturday. Who is your JMU MVP from the UVA win?

Bennett: Jamree Kromah earns my award. The defensive lineman finished with six tackles, three tackles for loss, and two sacks. It felt like Kromah was in the backfield throughout the game (probably because he was), as he pushed around UVA’s offensive line for 60 minutes and did well to get Virginia’s backfield members on the ground. 

He’s a versatile defender, with the ability to play inside and outside the line. That makes him one of the most valuable players on the defense, and he showed his importance Saturday. 

JMU’s starting defensive line is stacked with talent, but depth is a question. Kromah’s health will be critical this fall. If he’s able to play in all 12 games, it’s a massive boost for JMU’s season outlook. 

Jack: Aiden Fisher, the sophomore linebacker from Fredericksburg, VA. He got some good play time against Bucknell but I thought that was because it was Bucknell. This game made me realize that JMU is going to utilize some three linebacker sets and he will be a main focal point of the defense.

On Saturday he led the team with nine tackles, blocked the punt to give JMU the 14-0 lead and had a QB hit. He was everywhere and really shocked me with how seamlessly he blended in with a LB duo of Jones and Walker.

What does JMU need to do well Saturday to keep the momentum rolling against Troy?

Bennett: A competent passing defense would be a start. The Dukes’ struggles defensively since coming to the FBS have been almost entirely due to issues covering talented wide receivers in space. JMU needs passing defense improvement to beat Troy. 

I’d also say continue to limit turnovers and special teams miscues. JMU did a tremendous job of creating special teams havoc (blocked punt for a touchdown) and taking care of the football against UVA. Knock on wood, but Jordan McCloud has yet to throw an interception for the Dukes. 

If JMU wins the turnover battle against an evenly matched Troy, Saturday’s game is quite winnable.

Jack: Bennett nailed it, the Dukes need some sort of passing defense. Against the run JMU ranks 10th in the nation in total expected points added at -18.13 on the season, meaning JMU’s rush defense has effectively kept 18 points off the board. That is really good!

Pass defense is 106th in the nation in total EPA at +9.65. On a per play basis, a pass thrown against JMU adds 0.18 points. And teams are successful vs. JMU’s secondary 41.8% of the time, that’s 83rd in the nation.

JMU’s rush defense is stellar. But it doesn’t matter if it just gets constantly gashed through the air.

If JMU wants to win this week, and consistently in the Sun Belt, it needs to play better in the back half of the defense. If they do that, “winning” the East is very doable.

What’s your score prediction for Saturday’s contest?

Bennett: I’ll stick with my preseason prediction of JMU winning 28-24. I wouldn’t be surprised if JMU lost this game, as Troy is favored and won the league in 2022. The Trojans are sound on both sides of the ball, and they’re playing at home. 

It’s a toss-up game, but I like JMU’s passing defense to bounce back against a Troy team that isn’t known for its elite offense. JMU’s offense has weapons, especially if McCloud distributes the ball like he has the first two weeks. 

The Dukes beat Virginia despite an average performance. JMU has a really good football team. I think the 2023 Dukes announce their presence nationally with consecutive road wins against UVA and Troy.

Jack: I like JMU to win 35-31. I believe JMU will get enough out of the offense to win and the secondary will make a big play or two. Jon Sumrall, head coach of Troy, is good and hasn’t lost at home for a reason. He will lean on the pass and try to exploit JMU’s biggest weakness, but I believe Troy’s QB Gunnar Watson will make a costly second half mistake that secures a JMU win.

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