novapic

Redshirt senior quaterback Cole Johnson runs against Morehead State in JMU's season opener.

Nothing was normal about spring football in the CAA. Teams were split into divisions, games were constantly postponed, fans were almost nonexistent for the first half of the season and the game atmosphere didn’t resemble 2019.

This fall, some of that has returned. Fans are at full capacity, tailgating begins early in the day and CAA teams are back to their normal schedules. 

JMU football hosting Villanova for Family Weekend is part of that normalcy, and that’s something Dukes fans have come to expect. The Wildcats traveled to Harrisonburg in 2019 for a previous top-five FCS matchup, and they now return again two years later for what JMU football head coach Curt Cignetti calls the Dukes’ “toughest challenge to date.”

“It’s going to be a very big event for us,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Bryce Carter said. “Playing in front of the home crowd always gives the [players] some juice.”

The battle in 2019 was an electric one —  the Dukes took a 38-24 victory in Harrisonburg. Down 24-17 in the fourth quarter, the then-No. 2 team stepped up, scoring three touchdowns — including an 83-yard pick-six by redshirt senior saftey MJ Hampton to defeat the Wildcats and stay perfect at home.

Cignetti recognizes the battle that the 2019 game was, he said, but the 2021 Wildcats have grown from that game.

“[Villanova gave] us fits for about three quarters here in [2019],” Cignetti said. “[Villanova] blitzed a lot … You know this year the package has evolved again.”

JMU enters the game on a five-game win streak over Villanova, with the last loss to the Wildcats in 2014 on the road 49-31. The Dukes haven’t lost at home to the Wildcats since 2009, and in the series history between the two rivals, JMU averages 27.7 points per game.

Historically, the Dukes have the Wildcats’ number, but as heard around the CAA time and time again, there’s no off week in the CAA, and Cignetti’s acknowledged that fact.

“[Villanova] has good players,” Cignetti said. “Villanova’s got 15 senior starters — these guys have been together a long time, and they’re a really good football team.”

The Dukes are coming off a 23-21 win over New Hampshire in a far from perfect game. Two turnovers led to 14 points for the home team, including redshirt senior quarterback Cole Johnson’s first interception of the season.

Redshirt sophomore running back Latrele Palmer wasn't responsible for a fumble in the win over New Hampshire but he said he’s focusing on ball security in this week’s practices because the Dukes “didn’t do a good job of that this past weekend.” It’s crucial that JMU doesn’t turn the ball over to Villanova this week — the Wildcats will take advantage, he said.

The Dukes utilized their depth chart last week while mixing in injured players returning to the lineup. Redshirt senior running back Percy Agyei-Obese entered the game for the first time this season against New Hampshire, saying postgame that he’s “finally back.” That first game back, he said, left him “speechless.”

Redshirt senior running back Lorenzo Bryant Jr. is a depth player that saw snaps Oct. 2. Despite this being his seventh season, Bryant Jr. is fast and strong — a tough running back to play against who’s deep on the depth chart. 

Redshirt junior and redshirt freshman wide receivers Reggie Brown and Kevin Curry Jr. saw receptions against New Hampshire, and JMU looks for Brown to have a big impact against Villanova — especially with the coverage around redshirt freshman wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr.

On the Wildcats’ side, this is an experienced team and potentially JMU’s toughest CAA matchup for the year. Graduate quarterback Daniel Smith is in his final season for Villanova but at the peak of his career. He’s mobile, tends to move outside the pocket and is possibly Villanova’s biggest weapon —  he’s faced JMU before and remembers what happened in 2019.

“[Smith] does a lot of stuff outside of the scheme,” Carter said. “We just have to make sure we do a good job of communicating so we can play fast and keep him contained.”

Graduate running back Justin Covington and junior wide receiver Rayjoun Pringle could be the top two offensive threats outside of Smith for Villanova due to their experience and speed. 

Covington didn’t play against JMU in 2019 due to injury, but he’s healthy now and playing at the top of his game. He’s quick and has over 300 yards on 50 carries so far this season — JMU’s defense needs to be ready for Covington’s versatility, Cignetti said. 

Pringle has also proven himself to be a dependable receiver to Smith. The Dumfries, Virginia, native has 250 yards on 10 receptions to start the season.

“The best thing for us is going to be communication,” Carter said. “Everybody’s on the same page so we can all play fast.”

Defensively, Villanova’s linebackers match JMU’s with speed and aggression. Graduate linebacker Forrest Rhyne leads the Wildcats with 24 tackles so far this year, with 11 against Penn State. Senior linebacker Amin Black has had an impressive start to the season with 20 tackles —  four of them being tackles for loss.

The linebackers for the Wildcats play at high intensity, and Villanova’s run defense averages under 50 yards per game. But, with patience, Palmer said JMU can score on the ground.

“[To get past Villanova’s defense], we need to win our one-on-one matchups,” Palmer said. “[We] need to be more patient on the offensive line.”

One factor to note: a sold-out Bridgeforth Stadium. It’s Family Weekend, and student tickets sold out a couple of hours after opening. Cignetti described the atmosphere as “juiced up” ahead of the first home game in almost a month. 

With the atmosphere at its full capacity and a top-15 matchup between two teams that haven’t seen each other since the 2019 contest, it should be high-scoring and electric. After this, the Dukes hit the road for two more weeks.

“I think everybody’s going to be really excited,” Cignetti said. “It’ll be a great atmosphere … Fans are going to be loud, and I know it’s going to get our guys juiced up.”

Contact Savannah Reger at breezesports@gmail.com. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.