Keys to JMU Football’s Road Matchup with Marshall

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

Should JMU beat Marshall on Thursday, the hype around the Dukes may reach unparalleled heights. A win could boost JMU into the AP Top 25 ahead of a night homecoming game against in-state rival Old Dominion. Oh boy. 

Thursday’s game against Marshall is massive for the Dukes, especially as they fight for positioning in the Sun Belt East and hope for a chance to gain national recognition as arguably the best Group of Five team in the country. Playing in front of a national audience – the game will air on ESPN – gives JMU a giant opportunity to generate national buzz. 

Here are a few keys to the game for the Dukes. 

Contain Rasheen Ali 

Marshall’s defense has been surprisingly disappointing in recent weeks. After finishing first in the Sun Belt in scoring defense (16 points per game) in 2022, the Thundering Herd slipped to ninth (28.5 points per game) so far in 2023. With the defense struggling a tad, the offense has to pick up the slack. 

Quarterback Cam Fancher has grown since last season, but he’s still developing as a quarterback. He’s thrown seven touchdowns to go with five interceptions, still showcasing the occasional questionable decision or bad throw. That leaves a lot on the plate of running back Rasheen Ali. 

Ali often delivers, even with high expectations and a defense’s attention. He’s recorded 641 rushing yards to go with another 144 receiving yards. He’s up to an impressive 12 total touchdowns. He’s one of the best, if not the best, offensive players in the entire conference.

Marshall was the only Sun Belt team to run for more than 100 yards and two touchdowns against JMU last season. Can the Thundering Herd be the first team to crack 100 rushing yards against JMU in a game this season?

If JMU contains Ali, the Thundering Herd will have a tough time finding enough offense to win Thursday. That’s a big IF, though. Ali is special. 

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

Manage the environment 

Marshall is a perfect 3-0 at home this season, with both of its losses coming in recent road games. The Thundering Herd have a passionate and loyal fanbase, and I’d anticipate an energetic crowd as Marshall hosts an undefeated conference rival on ESPN. 

“We’re going to be walking into a hornet’s nest,” head coach Curt Cignetti said Monday.

The Dukes haven’t played a road game since their Sept. 23 victory over Utah State. JMU often plays its best at home, and they’ll need a spectacular road effort to take down one of the grittier Sun Belt East squads. 

JMU has outscored opponents by 23.7 points per game in three home games. In three road contests, the Dukes have outscored opponents by 3.3 points per game in three road games. The Dukes will face a major test Thursday, and they’d likely sign up for another narrow road win. 

“We’ve been able to find a way,” Cignetti said, “but this is a new challenge.”

Exploit Marshall’s weaknesses 

Despite two recent losses, I’m still impressed by Marshall. The Thundering Herd beat Virginia Tech earlier this fall, and they won nine games a season ago. Charles Huff will be coaching a Power Five team soon.

Marshall is good. But so was Georgia Southern. 

JMU has monsters in the trenches, and stellar athletes on the outside. JMU is an elite Group of Five program, and the Dukes shouldn’t fear any opponent because they have potential mismatches against every team in the Sun Belt, Marshall included. 

Can the running backs and offensive line establish a consistent rushing attack against a group allowing an average of 5.5 yards per carry? Thursday’s game could be a big outing for Kaelon Black and Ty Son Lawton, who only carried the ball a combined 17 times against Georgia Southern. They should be fresh against a weak Marshall rushing defense, even on a short week.

“We can’t stop the run right now,” Marshall head coach Charles Huff said Monday.

Marshall has allowed six rushing plays of 50+ yards, the most of any team in the country. For comparison, JMU has only allowed nine rushing plays of 10 or more yards, the fewest of any team in the country.

Fancher has shown himself to be turnover prone and inefficient at times this season. If JMU pressures the quarterback and forces him into rushed throws, the secondary could cash in with a couple interceptions. JMU intercepted three passes against Georgia Southern and dropped two others.   

If the Dukes exploit Marshall’s weaknesses – the run defense is a glaring issue and Fancher’s inconsistency can lead to turnovers – they can win this game by double digits.

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