JMU Football Bye Week Report Card: Grading the 5-0 Dukes

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

Take a deep breath, JMU fans. 

After four stressful, one-possession wins, JMU football enjoys a bye this week. The Dukes take a much-deserved week off before facing Georgia Southern on Oct. 14.

That game will air on ESPN2, as JMU earns yet another game on national TV. Given Georgia Southern’s passing prowess, it wouldn’t be a surprise if that game brought plenty of stress to JMU faithful. The Eagles can play, as the Dukes saw last year when their undefeated season came to a close in Statesboro. 

In the meantime, I’ll take the bye week as an opportunity to dish out a “midseason” report card, even though the Dukes aren’t truly halfway through the year. 

Offense: B

JMU ranks fifth in the Sun Belt in scoring, averaging 33.2 points per game. The Dukes’ passing attack is the second most efficient in the Sun Belt, behind just Texas State. Wide receivers Reggie Brown and Elijah Sarratt have each proven to be reliable, dynamic receivers. 

Quarterback Jordan McCloud deserves praise for stepping into the starting role despite losing the quarterback battle out of fall camp. He’s been solid through five games, and he’s playing his best football in recent weeks as his comfort level in the offense seemingly grows. 

On the other hand, the Dukes are committed to running the ball despite being 13th out of 14 teams in the SBC in yards per carry (4.1). The Dukes’ once dominant running attack has taken a step back this season, in part due to increased defensive competition. Running backs Kaelon Black and Ty Son Lawton have shown flashes of brilliance this year, but a consistent running attack is lacking.

Overall, the offense looks like a capable, solid unit. But it also doesn’t look like JMU will lead its league in scoring for the fifth consecutive season. 

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

Defense: B

The pass rush and rushing defense are elite, with the Dukes tallying an absurd 23 sacks through five games. JMU is allowing just 38.6 rushing yards per game, the best mark in the Sun Belt by more than 60 yards per contest. That’s incredible. 

The secondary, however, has allowed four touchdown passes of 50 yards or longer and another touchdown pass from 48 yards away. Teams are finding success scoring on long pass plays against JMU’s defense. 

JMU’s passing defense isn’t consistently terrible – it’s seventh in the Sun Belt in efficiency – but it gives up way too many chunk plays. 

Special teams: A+

A blocked punt recovered for a touchdown was critical in the win over Virginia, and the Dukes also blocked a punt in the season-opening victory over Bucknell. Kicker Camden Wise is a perfect 7-7 on field goals, and the return game has been respectable. Punter Ryan Hanson has shown himself to be a valuable weapon as well, putting nine of his 28 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. 

ESPN’s efficiency metric ranks the Dukes’ special teams unit fifth nationally. After a disappointing 2022 campaign on special teams, the Dukes are making game-changing plays on special teams in 2023.

Coaching: B+

It takes a special coaching staff and program culture to begin a season 5-0, especially when a team like JMU transitioning to a higher level of competition. Curt Cignetti and his staff are among the very best coaches in the Sun Belt, helping JMU immediately compete and beat its conference peers. 

I’d like to see more second-half aggressiveness in terms of play calling and decision making, but overall, the coaching staff is doing a lot of things well.

Overall: A-

JMU is 5-0 against a tough schedule. The Dukes took down UVA, which means a lot to the alumni base. JMU also defeated the two preseason favorites in the Sun Belt West.

The Dukes fall short of an A or an A+ due to the close nature of the victories. They’re 5-0, but they could certainly be 2-3 or 3-2, given how close the FBS wins have been so far this fall. 

JMU’s record is perfect, but the team’s performances have all included a few stretches of subpar play. 

Still, 5-0 is worthy of an A- at the very least. There’s room to improve, which is exciting for a 5-0 team.

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