JMU Football Roundtable: Can the Dukes Move to 5-0?

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin, Jack Fitzpatrick, and the JMU Sports Blog’s Rob Abbott

The Dukes are a perfect 4-0 on the season after a wacky win over Utah State, and they finally return home Saturday for the first time since Sept. 2.

In advance of Saturday’s showdown with a good South Alabama team, we sat down with esteemed guest Rob Abbott to break down the game. Rob is one of the two men behind the JMU Sports Blog, a beloved JMU site/podcast that’s been around for over a decade.

Huge thanks to Rob for joining us this week to chat JMU football.

JMU-Utah State was all kinds of weird. What will you remember most about the game if someone asked you about it in a year?

Bennett: Curt Cignetti pulling out a phone in an attempt to correct the officials, and the announcers losing their minds. What a comical (and stupid) series of events that led to a bunch of hilarious social media posts from across college football Twitter. I’ll remember that sequence for a while. 

Jack: The meme-ness of the game. I mean every aspect of that game was just weird. The phone. The announcers. The wild swings of momentum. I may just shutter and say “we won” if someone ever asks me about that game. 

Rob: The roller coaster of emotions we all experienced watching it. From the Dukes flashing some serious explosiveness in the opening quarter, to letting USU crawl (storm?) all the way back, to the defense finally snapping out of whatever funk it was in to secure the win at the end, this game had a little bit of everything. Throw in a couple of clowns in the booth who’s inane commentary nearly triggered me multiple times and it was an overall bonkers experience.

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

JMU plays at home Saturday for the first time in about a month. What are your expectations for the Family Weekend game day environment?

Bennett: Are we due for JMU fan complaints about other fans leaving early? Have we reached that portion of the season already?? It’s possible!

Regardless of how long 25,000 people stay in their seats — I’m anticipating it’ll be four quarters, for what it’s worth — I’m excited to see the home crowd Saturday. The game is sold out, and even if Family Weekend isn’t always as lively as Homecoming, I think the Dukes will have a noteworthy home-field advantage this weekend. It’s been far too long since fans threw streamers inside Bridgeforth Stadium, and I’m expecting people to be jacked up given the Dukes’ strong 4-0 start. 

Jack: I am expecting JMU to come out and play with an energy that we haven’t seen yet this season. Game 1 was a night game against an FCS opponent. This, to me, is the true home opener. I expect the 25,000 fans to make a measurable impact on the game and I expect a more raucous than normal family weekend crowd that provides an exceptional environment. 

Rob: I’ve actually grown to really appreciate Family Weekend crowds. It’s a guaranteed sellout and while JMU still is far from college football blue blood status, the program has started to climb to heights where the game is “the” big event for lots of families. As someone who went to JMU at a time when the game served mainly as a way to waste a few hours until it was time to drive your dinner reservation in Staunton, that’s a big shift.

Every year the Family Weekend crowd gets a little better as more mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters become more aware of JMU football. I think Saturday’s crowd will provide a great home field advantage after three weeks on the road.

South Alabama is a likely SBC West contender. What does JMU need to do well Saturday to defeat the Jaguars?

Bennett: Figure something out in the secondary. The Dukes’ offense looks like it’s finding its footing with Jordan McCloud at quarterback, and the defensive line and linebackers have been unreal against the run. 

Unfortunately, JMU has allowed five plays of 60 yards or more this season, all of which were passing plays. That’s the second-most of any team at the FBS level. South Alabama is tied for sixth nationally with three offensive plays of 60 yards or longer, including two passes of 60+ yards. Uh oh!

If JMU can find a way to limit chunk plays through the air, the Dukes can make a legitimate run at 10+ wins. That’s easier said than done, especially with South Alabama and Georgia Southern next up on the schedule. 

Jack: JMU needs to get better on first down, specifically first down runs. So far this season JMU has a 49% success rate on first down rush attempts. (A successful first down run is one that gets 50% or more of the necessary yards for a first down.) The Dukes have run on first down 57% of the time the last three games.  

The Dukes are one of the worst teams in the nation right now on third down, and in my opinion that starts on first down. JMU, more times than not, are starting drives behind the chains. They are setting the offense up to need big plays on second and more specifically third down thus resulting in a poor third down conversion number. 

I really don’t think the defense needs to play much better. I think this game will come down JMU’s ability to run the ball efficiently, consistently and convert later downs. 

Rob: At the risk of sounding too simplistic, the Dukes need to cut down on the mistakes. Like a lot of JMU fans, I was deep in a pit of despair and questioning the offensive philosophy during the 3rd quarter against USU. After rewatching the game though, it was pretty clear that it wasn’t a case of poor play calling or getting too conservative. Players just made mistakes. Dropped passes and missed easy throws, were literally the difference between moving the chains and another three an out.

Thus far this season we’ve seen that JMU can make big plays. I think Saturday’s game comes down to whether or not they can stop doing little things to hurt themselves.

Who wins, and what’s the score?

Bennett: I picked South Alabama to win 31-24 in the preseason, and I’ll stick to my guns. JMU can absolutely get it done Saturday, but South Alabama is a scary opponent and in my opinion the best team in the SBC West. The Dukes have looked flawed through four games, and I think secondary woes catch up to JMU late in the game Saturday. 

If you told me before the season the Dukes would start 4-1 in their first five games, though, I would’ve taken it. And while I’m the Debbie Downer today, my fellow roundtable respondents have me feeling more optimistic than expected about the Dukes’ chances of getting to 5-0.

Jack: JMU wins this game 42-37. Look, South Alabama can sling it, Carter Bradley is one of the best QBs in the league. Their 0.16 EPA/Pass is 43rd in the nation and they back it up with a rushing attack that ranks 9th in the nation in EPA/Rush. The Jaguars rushed for 243 against Oklahoma State as well and flexed all over the Cowboys.

The reason I think JMU can win this game is because South Alabama’s defense is nowhere near as good as it was last year and is actively worse in the secondary than JMU. Because of that I believe we will see a great offensive showdown with the Dukes, at home, prevailing. 

Rob: Dukes by 90. All kidding aside, I’m feeling really good about JMU’s chances in this one. Cignetti and the squad are 4-0. And they still haven’t played a complete game. South Alabama is going to be able to move the ball in the air. We know that. But we got a glimpse of how explosive the Dukes’ offense can be last weekend.

I think McLoud and the offense take a big step forward this weekend, the pass D takes a baby step, and the home crowd pushes JMU to a convincing win. JMU wins 31-17.

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