JMU football sits at 8-1 (5-0 CAA) three-quarters of the way through its regular-season slate in head coach Curt Cignetti’s first season. The Dukes will rest this weekend on a bye week before closing the regular season with home games against New Hampshire (4-3, 3-1 CAA), Richmond (4-4, 3-1 CAA) and a road trip to face Rhode Island (1-7, 0-5 CAA).
Cignetti has built upon former head coach Mike Houston’s work and has the Dukes rolling in all three phases of the game. However, JMU showed promise last season before a disappointing showing in the FCS playoffs, evidenced by a 23-20 loss to No. 8 Colgate, which lost 35-0 to No. 1 NDSU in the next round.
In that season-ending loss to the Raiders, JMU’s defense couldn’t get off the field and stayed on the field for 35 minutes — a 10-minute deficit compared to its opponent — while redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci had five interceptions.
As the playoffs draw closer, it’s time to examine where JMU has improved from last season in terms of time of possession, quarterback play and turnovers — areas that cost it in the 2018 FCS postseason.
Time of possession
The last few seasons of college and NFL football have highlighted many trends; among them is that playing better defense means playing less defense. Teams must win time of possession by sustaining drives with their offense to keep their defense rested and off the field.
Simply put, time of possession correlates to wins and better defensive play. The 10 leading teams in time of possession all have .500 or better records in both the FBS and NFL, with combined records of 59-18 and 58-19, respectively. By comparison, the bottom 10 in that category have a combined record of 33-43 in the FBS and 21-53-1 in the NFL.
Finally, in the NFL, the top 10 leaders in time of possession have, on average, a total defense ranked 12.8 out of 32 teams, while the bottom 10’s average is 24.8.
Given that correlation, it’s unsurprising to see that JMU’s success controlling the clock in 2019 has led to a two-game improvement over its 6-3 record through nine games in 2018. The Dukes have had possession for an average of 31:58 minutes per game this season, or 53.3%, up from 49% last season.
Interestingly, JMU’s 2019 defensive numbers are nearly identical to 2018; its marks of 4.7 yards per play and 289.9 yards per game are up from where they were a season ago at 4.6 and 289.5, respectively. However, the way it yields those yards to opposing offenses has changed.
The Dukes don’t allow opponents to control the clock by running the ball, as their 2.3 rushing yards per attempt allowed is lower than what was already an impressive mark of 3.1 in 2018. JMU allows slightly more passing yards per attempt (6.91 to 6.31) than it did last season.
JMU’s defense surrenders just 14.6 first downs per game, down slightly from 14.9 last year. Also, the Dukes have seen their opponents’ third-down conversion rate slide from 30.9% in 2018 to 29.1% in 2019, which is tied for the third-best mark in the FCS, though JMU has allowed fourth-down conversions at a 52.9% clip compared to 40.9% last season. If the Dukes improved in that area, they’d control even more of the clock.
DiNucci appears to be more comfortable and confident in his second season in Harrisonburg after transferring from Pitt in 2018. This is reflected in his passer rating (161.1, up from 139.5), yards per game (216.8, up from 175) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (3.75, up from 1.33).
Although his completion percentage is nearly the same (67.7 to 68.3), DiNucci has been more poised and accurate as he’s kept the ball out of the opposing defenders’ hands. Additionally, he’s received better protection, as the JMU offensive line has allowed fewer sacks (1.8 per game, down from 2.0).
In JMU’s sole loss this season, which came on the road to FBS foe West Virginia, DiNucci kept the Dukes in the game, going 13-for-20 with 156 yards before throwing a crucial fourth-quarter interception that gave the Mountaineers a go-ahead touchdown. Other than that errant throw, the Wexford, Pennsylvania, native has done his part to keep JMU ahead by limiting mistakes and spreading the ball around.
JMU’s five leading receivers are averaging over 195 yards per game, up from 181 in 2018. The addition of redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk has boosted DiNucci and the offense, as the Penn State transfer leads the team in catches (44), yards (680) and touchdowns (six).
Arguably JMU’s most notable area of improvement under Cignetti has been in the turnover department. The Dukes turn the ball over 1.22 times per game, down from 1.85 per game in 2018.
JMU’s defense is forcing 1.67 turnovers per game, which is right in line from its 2018 mark of 1.77 in 2018. The difference is that the Dukes are winning the turnover battle by coughing it up less.
In the FBS last season, the 10 teams with the most turnovers had a combined record of 33-79. Also, according to Sharp Football Analysis, NFL teams in the last 10 years win just 12.3% of games when losing the turnover battle by two or more and 4.5% when the margin is three or more.
In JMU’s five losses over the past two seasons, the Dukes lost the turnover battle four times — three times by a margin of three or greater and once by a margin of two. Fourteen of the Dukes’ 23 turnovers came in its four losses last season, which played a significant role in the team missing the FCS Championship game for the first time since 2015.
In the driver’s seat
JMU’s strong start under Cignetti can be traced to its control of the ball through time of possession, solid quarterback play and limiting turnovers. The Dukes are currently No. 2 in the FCS poll behind North Dakota State, and by closing the fourth quarter of the regular season strong, JMU may soon find itself in a postseason position to battle the Bison.
Contact James Faris at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.