Three Keys to JMU Football’s Bowl Game Against Air Force

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

While the transfer portal and National Signing Day draw ample attention from fans, let’s not forget there is a JMU football game Saturday. The Dukes will go for the first bowl win in program history against an Air Force team that presents obvious challenges with its stout defense and triple option attack. 

JMU is a slight favorite in the contest, but the Dukes have their work cut out for them against a unique opponent. Here are three keys to the game for JMU.

Stop the run

Air Force runs the ball on 86.8% of its plays. The Falcons’ triple-option attack is tougher to stop than a traditional rushing offense, as several players can run the ball on any given play — they don’t call it a triple option for nothing! JMU’s defenders will be put into positions where they need to follow their assignments perfectly or they’ll be at risk of giving up sustained drives. 

The Falcons run for 275.8 yards per game, the second-most nationally. JMU allows just 61.5 rushing yards per game, the best of any defense at the FBS level. 

Saturday’s game will come down to the running game. If JMU can slow down Air Force – holding the Falcons to 61 yards isn’t realistic but keeping them below their season average is a realistic goal – the Dukes can end their season with a 12-1 record. If JMU can’t stop the run, it’ll be a long day for the Dukes’ defense. 

Beating a triple option team starts with the run defense. Fortunately for JMU, the Dukes are loaded with strong defenders along the line and a trio of standout linebackers. What could be Aiden Fisher’s last game in a JMU uniform could also be a 10+ tackle performance, sending him over 100 tackles on the season. 

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

Care about the result

More often than not, bowl season comes down to which team wants to be there. For JMU, the Dukes will need to fight the challenge of losing the team’s focus with head coach Curt Cignetti leaving for Indiana and more than a dozen players in the transfer portal. Fortunately for JMU, just two players (DE Mikail Kamara and OL Carter Miller) have opted out of the game.

Will JMU’s players value securing the program’s first bowl victory as much as the fans? If they do, the Dukes have a good shot at winning. If they don’t, Air Force is one of the best Mountain West teams and plenty capable of beating JMU. 

While it’s unlikely Air Force has an emotional letdown in the Armed Forces Bowl, the Falcons did start the season 8-0 before dropping their final four games of the regular season. Can Air Force’s players rebound mentally from such a bummer of a November?

The team that looks the most like itself will likely leave Saturday with a victory. If both teams show up locked in – a rarity in bowl season – this might be the most competitive non-playoff game of bowl season. 

Create explosive plays

Air Force allowed four touchdowns of 50 yards or longer in its final four games of the season, all of which were defeats. The Air Force defense was stingy through the first eight games and a key reason why the Falcons were a perfect 8-0. In fact, they only allowed one touchdown of 50 yards or more in the first eight games of the season. 

For whatever reason – some of it might’ve simply been facing better offenses – the Falcons’ defense gave up a few massive plays late in the season. 

JMU’s passing attack was dynamic and explosive for much of 2023. Can Jordan McCloud connect with Elijah Sarratt and Reggie Brown on Saturday down the field? If the Dukes’ starting quarterback can move the ball downfield, the Dukes have the firepower to flirt with 30+ points. Air Force doesn’t want a shootout. 

Play calling will be a fascinating storyline for JMU. Without Cignetti and several offensive assistants in town, how will the Dukes call Saturday’s game? Will they find the chunk plays needed to win?

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