Key Takeaways From JMU Football’s Close Win Over Old Dominion

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

JMU football likely raised the blood pressure of fans yet again Saturday, holding on for a nail-biting 30-27 win over an improving Old Dominion side. 

While the win was far from a complete performance by the Dukes – they threw an interception on their opening drive and the defense gave up a few chunk plays – the Dukes found a way to stay undefeated. They continue to find ways to beat opponents, even if some of the games come down to the wire. 

Here are three key takeaways from another heart-pounding victory.

Dukes are good … and lucky!

I think it’s fair to say JMU plays elite football for the Group of Five level. The Dukes are ranked 23rd in the latest AP Top 25 poll – ahead of USC – and they check in at No. 39 in ESPN’s SP+ a predictive metric. ESPN’s Strength of Record puts JMU at No. 10. 

The Dukes are remarkably good, especially for a team in Year 2 of an FBS transition. 

They beat a Virginia team that recently beat six-win North Carolina and nearly took down Miami on the road this weekend. While the ‘Hoos likely won’t go bowling, they’re not a Power Five pushover and are a few late-game mistakes away from being 5-3 instead of 2-6. 

JMU also has notable wins over Troy and South Alabama, two of the top teams in the Sun Belt West. Georgia Southern might be the second-best team in the Sun Belt East behind the Dukes, and JMU beat the Eagles by 28. 

Again, JMU is very good. 

The Dukes are also a wee bit lucky. They’re 5-0 in one-possession games, a stat that often varies from season to season. This isn’t meant to take away from JMU’s incredible season, but it’s absolutely fair to admit the Dukes have been fortunate in close games

UVA squandered a double-digit fourth-quarter lead against the Dukes. Troy was a fourth-quarter missed field goal from beating the Dukes by a point. JMU threw away a 24-point lead against Utah State before hanging on for a 45-38 win. Against Old Dominion, the Monarchs were a play or two away from leaving Bridgeforth with a win. 

Of course, none of those near-losses turned into losses. JMU won all of those games. 

“Whether you win 73-3 or 3-2, they all count as one, and we’re getting everybody’s best shot, so really proud of the team,” JMU head coach Curt Cignetti said Saturday after the ODU victory. 

Cignetti’s comment is fair, BUT when fans compare JMU to other top Group of Five teams or even mid and high-level Power Five teams, the Dukes’ margin of victory has to be considered in that conversation. I’m not sure there’s a major difference between JMU and Troy, for example. 

Yes, the Dukes beat the Trojans 16-14 earlier this season, but that game was a toss up. Since then, Troy hasn’t lost. The Trojans are 6-2, after a 31-13 road beatdown of a good Texas State team. Troy is REALLY good, and if JMU and Troy played again, the betting line would be close to a pick‘em. 

The same is true for teams like Air Force and Tulane. Both teams are really good. JMU could absolutely beat them, but the Dukes have not been a dominant team this year and they aren’t the clear-cut best Group of Five team. They’re in the conversation, but a lack of consistency within games leaves some lingering questions about the Dukes’ likelihood of going 12-0. 

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

Running game still slow

Only 34% of JMU’s rushing attempts Saturday were “successful,” according to The Dukes’ rushing attack was lackluster for much of the game against ODU, as JMU averaged just 3.7 yards per carry on 33 rushing attempts. 

This entire season, the Dukes have struggled to finish games in part because the rushing attack is one of the least efficient in college football. They’re averaging just 4.1 yards per carry, and no player is averaging more than 65 yards per game this fall. The rushing attack averages a total of just 149.3 yards per game.

“We’ve got to get our running game going,” Cignetti said Saturday night. 

Cignetti called Kaelon Black and Ty Son Lawton a good 1-2 punch, but he wants to see the offensive line create bigger lanes for the two running backs. Latrele Palmer has seemingly slipped out of the running back rotation, an interesting storyline that hasn’t drawn much of any media attention. 

JMU likely won’t become a dominant running team this fall, but any minor improvements running the ball would be beneficial. Maybe the Dukes can incorporate a jet sweep or reverse in coming weeks to add an element to the running game before the 2023 season ends. 

Regardless, I wouldn’t be shocked to see JMU look for a running back (or two) and powerful run blocking offensive lineman in the transfer portal this offseason. 

JMU’s player development shines

There’s no doubting JMU football’s success finding key players in the transfer portal, but I’m more impressed by the multi-year development of some of the Dukes’ best players. 

Reggie Brown went from a role player in 2021 to a solid contributor in 2022 and a stud in 2023. He’s dropped some catchable passes, but other than that, Brown has been one of the Sun Belt’s most dangerous wide receivers. He’s up to 691 receiving yards this season through eight games, which is more than he had combined in 2021 and 2022 across 22 games. 

Jalen Green was a pass-rush specialist last season. This year, he’s a three-down player and has 15.5 sacks and is arguably the leader in the clubhouse to win Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year honors. Green has more sacks by himself than 44 FBS teams. 

The Dukes’ coaching staff and players deserve major credit for continuing to work and develop. It’s easy for players who aren’t thrust into major starting roles to let their work ethic slip or want to transfer. 

In the case of Brown and Green, they’ve decided to dig in and improve. Their work behind-the-scenes the last few years has put them in a position to be superstars on an undefeated JMU squad as seniors. 

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