Key Takeaways from JMU Football’s Win Over South Alabama

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

While JMU football fans might have the occasional complaint about the Dukes’ second-half performances in recent weeks, no fan of the Dukes will complain about JMU’s overall record through five games.

The Dukes are a perfect 5-0 (2-0 SBC) entering their bye week, after beating a quality South Alabama team 31-23. JMU led 24-7 at halftime before clinging to its lead late and moving to 5-0.

After a much-needed week off, the Dukes will face a talented Georgia Southern team (4-1, 1-0 SBC) on Oct. 14. That matchup will be one of the more entertaining Sun Belt East showdowns this fall.

Here are a few takeaways from JMU’s win over South Alabama.

Questions at receiver answered

Coming into the season, there were questions about whether the Dukes could replace losses in their wide receiver room. I’d say those questions are largely answered, in large part thanks to the emergence of sophomore transfer Elijah Sarratt.

The former FCS wide receiver leads the team with 19 catches this season, and he’s racked up 280 yards (56 per game) to go with two receiving touchdowns. Sarratt caught five passes for 92 yards and a score against the Jaguars.

Reggie Brown, who dropped a few passes Saturday in one of his shakier outings of the fall, still leads the team with 373 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He’s emerged as the team’s most dynamic receiver through five games, averaging an impressive 23.3 yards per catch.

Even with Kris Thornton graduated, JMU’s receivers are making plays. Several other players, including Phoenix Sproles and Taji Hudson, have contributed at receiver and given quarterback Jordan McCloud options outside of Brown and Sarratt.

Even tight end Zach Horton posted huge stats Saturday, catching three passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns. Horton typically shines as a blocker.

“He has put together outstanding games, games one through five,” head coach Curt Cignetti said. “He is a tenacious blocker. Now he finally had the opportunity to catch the ball a few times today and had a career day.”

Running back Kaelon Black has also contributed nicely this season, ranking third on the team with 13 catches.

I wondered who might step up at wide receiver this season, and Sarratt has stepped up big time alongside several other contributors. Once an offseason question, the passing attack has turned out to be the strength of the offense. That was evident Saturday.

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

Third-down stops

JMU’s third-down offense is one of the worst in college football, with the Dukes converting just 27.9% of their third downs. On Saturday, they were an ugly 2-14 on third down and 0-2 on fourth down.

While the offense needs to improve on third down, the defense’s third-down success is a huge reason why JMU is 5-0. The Dukes have allowed opponents to convert on just 27.5% of their third downs.

JMU’s offense is converting on just 27.9% of third downs, but that’s still a better third-down conversion percentage than its opponents!

The Dukes have some issues in pass coverage, which leads to people questioning the defense. Those questions and concerns are fair, but overall, the defense has played well this fall. They’re elite on third downs, and they’ve held their two conference opponents to an average of 18.5 points per game. That’ll work.

I was impressed with the defense Saturday, which held South Alabama to 5-18 on third downs and 1-4 on fourth downs.

The Dukes turtle

I’m not that concerned with JMU squandering its early 14-0 lead to UVA (before coming back to win) in Week 2, given UVA’s talent at wide receiver and the emotional meaning of that game for UVA. After all, the Dukes did win the emotionally charged game against a Power Five opponent.

JMU being outscored by Utah State and South Alabama 37-14 after halftime, however, concerns me.

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The Dukes have a tendency to turtle. When leading, it feels like the offense goes from doing everything it can to score to doing everything it can to burn clock.

Some of this falls on execution. The Dukes’ offense simply needs to make more plays in the third and fourth quarters. They’ve missed open throws and blocks that would’ve turned failed plays into nice gains.

Some of the issues fall on play calling and decision making, though.

JMU ran the ball on 20 times in the second half Saturday, averaging 2.45 yards per rush. The Dukes only threw six passes (one was intercepted), but they averaged 13.8 yards per pass and scored on a long touchdown pass to Horton.

“I think the thought process was with the three-score lead, and there were some bad things happening in the pass game,” Cignetti said after the game. “There was an interception, and they were dropping eight … quarterback had a little bit of a gimpy leg at that point. We’re trying to eat the clock, rely on our defense.”

Cignetti also mentioned that quarterbacks coach Tino Sunseri was on the headset throughout the game, complaining about where the ball was thrown compared to where he felt it should’ve been thrown at times.

JMU’s head coach even went as far as saying “some scary things” started to happen when they dropped back and threw the ball in the second half.

Obviously, Cignetti knows the internal dynamics better than me. But it’s hard to understand the logic of going so run heavy after halftime when the passing attack created all three of JMU’s offensive touchdowns Saturday. McCloud, even if he missed some reads, made plenty of great plays as a passer and runner.

It felt odd to see the Dukes abandon the passing game the way they did, and those decisions arguably let South Alabama back into the game.

If Cignetti and company continue to call conservative plays in the second half with the goal of running clock rather than running up the lead, a Sun Belt team will come back on the Dukes and turn a likely win into a heartbreaking loss.

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