Keys to JMU Football’s Sun Belt East Showdown at Georgia State

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

JMU football faces arguably its biggest remaining test of the season Saturday, when it hits the road to face a 6-2 Georgia State team with a dangerous offense. The Dukes’ narrowly beat Georgia State 42-40 a season ago, erasing a 20-point deficit for a thrilling home win. 

They’ll need a more consistent performance this fall to leave Atlanta with a win. Here’s a look at three keys to Saturday’s game for the Dukes.

Throw the ball effectively

JMU’s most obvious mismatch Saturday is the passing game. The Dukes’ offense is the second-most efficient in the Sun Belt, and they’re 11th nationally in success rate on passing plays. 

Georgia State’s defense ranks in the bottom 30 nationally in passing defense success rate, as well as passing defense expected points added (EPA). Opposing teams are completing 64.2% of their passes against the Panthers, throwing for 282.8 yards per game. Opponents have 14 touchdown passes compared to just seven interceptions. 

Jordan McCloud threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns (plus two interceptions) against a suspect Old Dominion passing defense last weekend. Look for the Dukes to unleash the passing attack again this weekend, with Reggie Brown and Elijah Sarratt testing Georgia State’s secondary. 

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

Limit Georgia State’s backfield

Georgia State’s quarterback-running back combination of Darren Grainger and Marcus Carroll might be the best in the Sun Belt. Carroll leads the conference in rushing, averaging 132.5 yards per game, while Grainger ranks 14th with 56 rushing yards per game. They’ve combined for 17 rushing touchdowns. 

That doesn’t even address Grainger as a passer. He throws for 223.6 yards per game, and he’s highly efficient. Grainger completes 67.4% of his passes, and he’s thrown 12 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions. 

That duo has given some Sun Belt defenses fits, and the Panthers have reached 30 or more points in five of their eight games this season. They’ve scored at least 20 points in seven of their eight games. 

Troy was the one team to consistently slow down the Panthers, beating Georgia State 28-7. The Trojans held the Panthers to just 3.4 yards per carry and intercepted Grainger twice. Georgia Southern intercepted Grainger twice last week, making the Panthers 6-0 when Grainger doesn’t throw an interception and 0-2 when he makes a mistake through the air. 

Can JMU become just the second team this season to truly stifle Georgia State’s offense?

Strong fourth-quarter finish

The Dukes were tremendous at closing out Georgia Southern and Marshall in recent weeks. They outscored Georgia Southern 21-0 in the third quarter to turn a nice lead into a blowout. Against Marshall, JMU outscored the Thundering Herd 17-9 in the second half to turn a 3-0 halftime lead into a double-digit win. 

Last weekend, however, the Dukes had a hard time putting Old Dominion away. The Monarchs outscored JMU 17-16 in the second half, including 3-0 in the fourth quarter. 

JMU hasn’t outscored a team in the final 15 minutes of a game since outscoring UVA 12-0 in the fourth quarter of the Dukes’ 36-35 win. The Dukes may have fixed their recent third-quarter woes, but they’re not doing much offensively in fourth quarters. Here’s a look at the team’s fourth-quarter scoring in recent weeks:

  • Troy: 0-7
  • Utah State: 7-7
  • South Alabama: 7-13
  • Georgia Southern: 0-7
  • Marshall: 7-7
  • ODU: 0-3
  • Total: 21-44

The Dukes have only scored 21 fourth-quarter points in their last six games, an average of 3.5 per game. For comparison, here’s a look at JMU’s scoring efforts across the other three quarters in those six games:

  • First quarter: 55-3
  • Second quarter: 56-44
  • Third quarter: 43-31

The Dukes have outscored their opponent in five of the six first quarters, four of the six second quarters, and four of the six third quarters during that six-game span. 

JMU leading these games causes more conservative play calling in the final 15 minutes, which in turn leads to fewer points. The Dukes are understandably more focused on killing clock than adding to their point total in those late-game moments. That was especially true in the South Alabama, Georgia Southern, and Marshall games, where the Dukes were in complete control entering the final quarter. They won two of those three games by double digits. 

The Dukes were in tight games against Troy, Utah State, and Old Dominion, though, and they only scored seven points in those three fourth quarters. That’s a rather disappointing showing across 45 minutes of game time. More often than not, the Dukes’ defense has bailed out the offense in those late-game spots.

This points to a continued issue with the running game. JMU ranks in the bottom 15 nationally in rushing success rate, and the Dukes lean on the running game when trying to burn clock. If that running game isn’t successful, it becomes hard to close games out. 

If JMU opens up a lead against Georgia State, can the running backs and offensive line successfully ice the game?

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