JMU Football Roundtable: Dukes Remain Undefeated Entering Bye

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin, Jack Fitzpatrick, and JMU Sound Off’s Jonathan McNamara

The Dukes are a perfect 5-0 entering their bye week, which has just about every JMU football fan excited.

Bennett and Jack were joined by JMU Sound Off’s Jonathan McNamara for their weekly roundtable discussion. Unsurprisingly, there were lots of positives to discuss.

Coming into the season, what did you expect JMU’s record/performance to be through five games? What’s your reaction to the 5-0 start?

Bennett: I predicted a 4-1 start in our preseason prediction story, but I thought that was on the optimistic side. Playing at UVA, Troy, and Utah State in three consecutive weeks wasn’t easy, and neither was beating a capable South Alabama team at home. 

Reaching 5-0 entering the bye week is a phenomenal start to the year.

I’m most impressed by JMU’s ability to adjust on the fly, with the Dukes turning to Jordan McCloud at quarterback and changing out key pieces in the secondary to find the best group. Heck, they’ve gone through a chunk of the 5-0 stretch without their starting linebackers healthy, but it hasn’t seemed to make a major difference. 

Jack: Coming into the season I truly thought this team would have lost at least a game. Those three road games had me worried and I believed the Dukes would’ve dropped one maybe even two! The fact they went out to Utah State, then to come back to Harrisonburg and welcome in an SBC West powerhouse in South Alabama and pulled out a win in both was mind boggling.

Look, this team has flaws… major ones. But Cignetti has pounded the table on how this team is all working toward the same goal and is on the same page. For the most part JMU is a well coached team that knows how to win. I’m shocked they are 5-0 but I am thoroughly ecstatic the Dukes have pulled five wins, four against FBS teams, three on the road, to start this season. 

Jonathan: I came into 2023 with a ton of questions related to this team. I had many reasons to be optimistic, but also many reasons to be concerned. For me, I truly thought 4-1 was the best case scenario for this team. When I looked at the quality of our opponents and the travel involved with trips to Utah State and Troy, I thought 2-3 losses was very possible.

This is why the 5-0 start is so worthy of celebration. It has been far from perfect, but the ability for this team to find ways to win in only our second season of FBS, is truly remarkable. Full credit to the coaches, players and support staff for this incredible accomplishment. 

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

Who is your JMU MVP through five games?

Bennett: I’ll take Jalen Green. He’s recorded 11 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, as well as a forced fumble and an interception returned for a touchdown. Most impressively, he only tallied 0.5 tackles for loss in the win over Bucknell. Most of this elite production is coming against FBS teams. 

Green was expected to pick up some of the slack with Isaac Ukwu transferring to Ole Miss. Instead of being one of a few guys to replace Ukwu’s production, Green has surpassed Ukwu’s 2022 tackle for loss total (10.5) in just five games. He’s one sack away from reaching Ukwu’s 2022 sack total as well. He’s gone from an expected contributor to maybe the front runner for Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year. 

Jack: I won’t steal Jonathan’s thunder here because his pick is phenomenal. I am going to go with maybe a weird pick that is grounded in advanced stats.

It is Jordan McCloud. I know he is currently at odds with the head coach due to execution and “scary things” happening in the pass game and I know he hasn’t been the best in the third quarter. Look, I believe those shortcomings are more on coaching and play calling rather than purely on McCloud’s execution. 

McCloud played all Fall camp as the QB2. He hadn’t played a snap of football in about two years when he came in against Bucknell. Despite all of that he is 20th in the entire nation in weighted EPA per play at 0.565. He’s doing this with a rushing attack that has an EPA of -0.098 which is 103rd in the nation. McCloud has taken over this offense, put up amazing numbers, led a comeback at UVA and is getting exponentially better week in and week out. 

McCloud is my MVP. 

Jonathan: For me, the MVP is Aiden Fisher. Considering he has come in to replace two linebackers that Curt Cignetti called “two of the best players on our roster” has been a key factor in our teams success through five games. In his remarks after the win over South Alabama, Cignetti stated “if there is another linebacker in the league playing better than him now, I’d like to see it.” That speaks volumes to what he has meant to this defense and for me, that is why he is the MVP. 

If you were the head coach of the Dukes for a day/game/week whatever, is there anything you’d change or tweak?

Bennett: I’d love to see the Dukes play one game with an overly aggressive decision making process. I’m talking about going for just about every fourth down in opposing territory. Throwing the ball on 70% of plays. Go for the kill!

I’d love to see how teams would adjust to the Dukes breaking their tendencies. I think aggressive decisions would put teams on their heels against a talented JMU squad.

Overall, though, I’m really impressed with JMU’s coaching staff. The Dukes are more conservative than I’d like sometimes, but they’re also 5-0 in part due to elite coaching and recruiting. 

Jack: Yes. 100%. I would change the second half play calling and adjust the way the Dukes approach the running game and first down play calling. JMU has a sub 50% success rate on first down when running the ball and yet run the ball on first more than 55% of the time. 

This is a rushing attack, as I mentioned earlier, that is one of the worst in terms of efficiency in the nation. Which is a far cry from last year’s running game that was led by Percy Agyei-Obese. Last year the running game was wildly efficient with a 0.08 EPA/Rush. 

To me, when the passing attack isn’t working I wouldn’t go all in on running the ball. There needs to be a tad more creativity in the rushing game and in turn also the passing attack. It seems that things get a bit stale in the second half which is a big reason the offensive numbers fall off a cliff. 

At the end of the day, the Dukes are 5-0 though so the current coaching is clearly working. I am just nit picking on it. 

Jonathan: For starters, let’s be glad I’m never going to be put in that position. I’m always very transparent in saying that I never played the sport, so take what I say with a MASSIVE grain of salt. 

But in the spirit of the question, I would love to see if there could be a way to give Alonza Barnett another opportunity to help give this offense a spark. To be clear, I’m not calling for a change at quarterback. What Jordan McCloud has done through 4.5 games deserves tremendous praise. This is particularly true considering how much time he has missed over the past few seasons due to injury. 

But in moments where the offense hits a wall, I’m intrigued by the idea of seeing if there could be some plays designed for Alonza. Yes, he struggled in his opening chapter, but the talent and pedigree are there. Have to think he would seize the moment if given another opportunity to contribute. 

Again, that’s just me as an uneducated fan. Glad I’m not the one making those calls. 

Editor’s note: You can listen/watch the latest JMU Sound Off episode below.

Which of JMU’s remaining games do you think will be the most difficult to win?

Bennett: Georgia Southern and Marshall are two logical choices, but I’ll go a little outside the box and say Appalachian State on Nov. 18. The Mountaineers are just 3-2, but they have one-possession road losses to North Carolina and Wyoming. They’ve yet to drop a conference game after narrowly escaping with a win at ULM last weekend, and they might not lose a Sun Belt game until November. 

App State’s next three games are against Coastal Carolina, ODU, and Southern Miss. The Mountaineers might be the most underrated team in the East right now, and I’m expecting them to play extremely hard (and well) against JMU after choking away a 28-3 lead against the Dukes last season. 

Jack: I believe it is Marshall on a short week after this Georgia Southern game. Marshall has one of the best defenses in the Sun Belt and they are extremely well coached with Charles Huff at the helm. Granted, the Thundering Herd do have an anemic offense, but they are still legit. The fact it is on the road in West Virginia on a short week, that game is going to be tough! 

Jonathan: The obvious answer to this question for me is Georgia Southern. They are a pass heavy offense that had tremendous success last year against our secondary. They also have the benefit of the bye week to rest and prepare for our game. While I think our secondary is progressing, this will undeniably be their biggest test to date and is one that concerns me. 

However, one thing the Sun Belt has shown is to expect the unexpected. As Cignetti stated in his postgame press conference, we are getting everyone’s best game. All of our remaining opponents will have all the motivation in the world coming into our games. No easy wins down the stretch. 

Which of the Dukes’ remaining games are you most excited for and why?

Bennett: App State, baby! The Mountaineers have a great program, and the Dukes have some memorable battles with them over the years. I’ll be in the stands that Saturday, which makes me even more excited. 

Old Dominion on Homecoming is an honorable mention for me, too. While the Monarchs might be the worst team in the Sun Belt East, I’m really excited for JMU to likely even the all-time series with ODU. There should be a great atmosphere that Saturday, and in-state victories are always valuable when trying to boost recruiting and fan engagement. 

Jack: App State mainly because that is the only game I will be able to attend in person this season. I think that game is also shaping up to have massive implications on the Sun Belt championship. For JMU, they can play spoiler to App State’s SBC East hopes.

The Mountaineers won a thriller against ULM on Saturday, ahead of the JMU game they face off with Coastal, ODU, Marshall and Georgia State. There is a strong chance App enters the game against JMU with none or one SBC loss. Add in the fact they will be playing for revenge?! Oh man, that game is going to be popcorn. 

Jonathan: The game against Marshall for me has potential to be massive for both the conference and the respective programs. A battle for first place in the Eastern Division in prime time, on national tv is hard to beat. 

But all that being said, my answer is App State. It seems like every time we line up against them, it’s a classic. The win in 2008 is one of my top five most enjoyable moments as a sports fan. I think they will be highly motivated coming into Bridgeforth and I anticipate their fans will travel well. This should make for an incredible atmosphere and for that reason, it’s the game I’m most excited for. 

I know this is not a question, but on behalf of all of us at JMU Sound Off, thank you for your coverage. We are lucky as a fanbase to have so many quality outlets covering the program. We appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with you guys and look forward to future opportunities to work together to provide more content to the fans of JMU Athletics.

Bennett: Folks, we swear we didn’t pay Jonathan to say that!

And we agree, JMU fans are lucky to have so many different sources of JMU sports analysis. It’s a great era to be a fan of the Dukes.

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