Keys to JMU Football’s Week 4 Game At Utah State

By Bennett Conlin

JMU outlasted Troy last week, picking up a 16-14 win. The Dukes are feeling good after consecutive road wins over UVA and Troy, but the road travels aren’t over.

Curt Cignetti’s team ends a three-game road trip Saturday at Utah State. The Aggies don’t look like a Mountain West title contender, but they’re plenty good enough to beat JMU if the Dukes don’t execute well.

Here are a few keys to the game for the Dukes, who are looking to open the season with a perfect 4-0 record.

Pressure Utah State’s quarterback

Utah State head coach Blake Anderson told the media that freshman quarterback McCae Hillstead will start Saturday. He came into the team’s 39-21 loss to Air Force (one of the best G5 teams in the country) and played well, completing 18 of his 27 passes for 202 yards and three touchdowns.

The Aggies like Hillstead, and fans seem excited about his potential.

He’s a true freshman making his first career start, but UVA true freshman Anthony Colandrea torched the Dukes’ secondary in Week 2 in his first career start. For JMU to slow down Utah State’s passing attack, which features a talented young quarterback and a standout wide receiver in Terrell Vaughn, the pass rush needs to excel.

JMU forced six sacks against Troy, creating key negative plays in the passing game. The Dukes sacked Colandrea four times in Week 2.

The Dukes’ secondary isn’t the team’s strength, so a strong pass rush is critical in helping out the defensive backs.

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

Spread the wealth

JMU’s passing attack has been respectable, yet unspectacular through three games. The same can be said of the entire offense.

I’d like to see the Dukes work to incorporate more players into the passing game this week. Taji Hudson and Phoenix Sproles caught 11 passes for 86 yards and one touchdown (thrown by Hudson to Sproles) against Virginia. Against Troy and Bucknell, the duo combined for two catches for 13 yards.

That feels too low, given each player’s talent.

Sproles and Hudson look the part of athletic, reliable receivers. Reggie Brown and Elijah Sarratt have stepped up nicely and deserve plenty of targets, but I hope the Dukes’ offensive plan allots for more opportunities for Sproles and Hudson against Utah State.

Wear the Aggies down

This game sets up well for the Dukes to sustain drives. Utah State’s defense isn’t a great group (106th nationally per ESPN’s SP+), and the Aggies are one of the 10 worst teams nationally in time of possession.

While time of possession is hardly the most important stat — the Aggies lost the TOP battle in a 78-28 win over Idaho State — I like JMU’s chances if the Dukes can consistently keep their own offense on the field.

The Dukes had four three-and-outs against Troy and three against UVA. Not every JMU drive Saturday needs to end in points, but if the Dukes can limit three-and-outs and gradually wear down Utah State’s defense, the running game should find success in the second half.

Holding onto the football should also help JMU’s defensive line stay fresh, which will likely be a key in stopping Utah State’s young quarterback. Saturday looks like a prime opportunity for JMU’s offense to put together a breakout performance, and consistently creating longer drives is a must as the Dukes get closer to the weekly grind of league play.

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