Keys to JMU Football’s Game Against South Alabama

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

JMU football has a chance Saturday to start 5-0 in consecutive FBS seasons.

The only team standing in their way? South Alabama, which happened to be a popular preseason pick to win the Sun Belt West. The Jaguars (2-2) are solid offensively and defensively, and they’ll push JMU on Saturday.

Still, the Dukes are plenty good enough to pick up win No. 5 this weekend. Here are a few keys to the matchup, which kicks off at noon ET and will air on ESPNU.

Move the chains

JMU is averaging a respectable 33.8 points per game, scoring 30 or more points in three of four games. The team’s 16-point showing against Troy isn’t the end of the world, given Troy’s defensive talent.

The Dukes’ scoring output is solid, but they’ve been surprisingly bad on third and fourth downs.

JMU is converting just 31.5% of its third downs, and it’s 2-5 (40%) on fourth down. They’re one of the 15 worst third-down offenses in the FBS, which makes the team’s total scoring output all the more impressive. At the same time, if JMU can figure out its third-down woes, the Dukes’ offense can take a significant jump forward.

Last year, JMU converted 39.7% of its third downs and 45% of its fourth-down attempts. In 2021, JMU converted 44.6% of its third downs and 56.3% of its fourth downs. There’s ample room for third-down improvement.

If JMU wants to finish atop the Sun Belt East, the third-down offense needs to get better fast.

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

Secondary standouts

It’s no secret that JMU’s passing defense is (to put it mildly) an inconsistent unit. The group is allowing more than 300 passing yards per game, and some of the deep completions look shockingly easy.

On the bright side, JMU had secondary players step up against UVA, Troy, and Utah State. Francis Meehan snagged a nice interception against UVA, and Devyn Coles recorded one against Troy.

In the Utah State win, defensive backs Jarius Reimonenq and D’Angelo Ponds recorded interceptions.

While the secondary isn’t the team’s strength, individuals have stepped up to help JMU narrowly win games. Can the Dukes find another defensive back or two to step up against a South Alabama passing attack that ranks third in the conference in passing efficiency?

South Alabama’s offense operates extremely efficiently, as the group is balanced and converts 51.9% of its third-down attempts. Quarterback Carter Bradley is among the best quarterbacks in the conference. The Dukes’ defense likely needs to force a turnover or two to disrupt the Jaguars’ offensive unit.

Lean on the home crowd

Saturday’s game at Bridgeforth Stadium is sold out, as the Dukes host their 2023 Family Weekend game. The Family Weekend crowd isn’t always the most electric, but there should be plenty of butts in seats at kickoff.

After Curt Cignetti and company emphasized the challenge of winning games on the road, it’s time for the Dukes to take advantage of playing in Harrisonburg.

I’d love to see defensive players engage the crowd often Saturday, leaning on the home-field advantage to make a difference against an evenly matched opponent. South Alabama is an impressive 6-2 on the road since the start of the 2022 season, including a road victory at Oklahoma State earlier this fall. It’ll take a special atmosphere to throw off the Jaguars, but it’s possible.

JMU is 27-2 at home under Curt Cignetti. Will the home crowd provide a noticeable advantage Saturday? If it does, the Dukes have a good chance to move to 5-0 entering their bye week.

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