footy pic

Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Abi Nwabuoku-Okonji celebrates a big play against Robert Morris on Feb. 27, 2021.

It doesn’t get better than this.

JMU versus Richmond is one of the biggest rivalries in the CAA. These top-tier FCS schools have played every year since 1987, and their first matchup dates back to 1981. Previous games between the Dukes and the Spiders have been unpredictable and thrilling, whether it was JMU’s kick return to win in 2008 or Richmond's upset of the Dukes in 2015 when ESPN's College GameDay was in town.

This game is different though. This is JMU’s first home CAA game, the first game with 30% fan capacity in Bridgeforth Stadium and the Dukes’ first game since March 27. The winner of the game wins the CAA South Division and almost guarantees a spot in the FCS playoffs April 24. For the Dukes and the Spiders, it’s the biggest game of the year. 

1. Adjusting to the Spiders: Previewing Richmond

JMU and Richmond know each other, they have a history and they know what’s at stake.

The Dukes have prepared for Richmond three times this year: once during the first COVID-19 pause before JMU’s own outbreak worsened, secondly after the 38-10 victory over William & Mary on March 27 and now for Saturday, with a chance to win the CAA South Division and punch a ticket to the FCS playoffs.

This Richmond team requires three different game plans and strategies because it’s the best Spider team in years. With this team, there isn’t one strong player or one strong position —  every piece has a moving part and creates a cohesive whole.

It starts with the offense. Redshirt senior quarterback Joe Mancuso is electrifying, mobile and big. Although routinely staying the pocket more than 2019, Richmond has the receivers and the offensive line to give Mancuso time. Sophomore running back Savon Smith is effective from both sides of the field and leads the group of young backs. 

Richmond is good at getting the ball from point A to point B in the passing game. The team's good at separating from pass converge in enough time to give Mancuso a shot at a deep ball. The Dukes’ secondary is key for when Richmond has the ball, and if they can stop the passing game, JMU can win the contest.

Defensively, the Spiders are fast. Redshirt senior defensive lineman Darius Reynolds leads the team by example, pounding the quarterback, and is quick to read plays. Redshirt freshman linebacker Xavier Marshall is a multi-use player who takes up space and can run — and recorded five tackles against Elon on March 13.

As a whole, Richmonds defense swarms Wopponents and is good against running backs. If JMU wants to win, it’ll have to throw.

The Spiders are big, and they take advantage of slow starts. While only playing Elon and William & Mary, Richmond pounded on its opponents, jumping out to fast openings and never giving the opponent the chance to crawl back in. 

“They’re excited to play, no question about it,” Richmond head coach Russ Huesman said in the CAA teleconference on Monday. “You can see a bounce in their step, a lot of energy ... Both teams are excited to play.”

JMU leads the series against the Spider's at 19 games, but a common trend in the rivalry is wins on the road. In 39 games played, the away team has won 19 times. In a game where the FCS playoffs are on the line, JMU can’t afford to slip up and let Richmond add to this number.

The Dukes will need to start fast, stay consistent and play their heart out. Bridgeforth Stadium will be at 30% capacity and JMU controls its destiny — now, let’s see if the team has what it takes to knock off the No. 11 team.

2. Coaches' corner: Full speed ahead, it's go mode

With only one week remaining in the regular season and Selection Sunday on April 18, people might assume that, obviously, all attention should be focused on the playoffs.

For JMU football head coach Curt Cignetti, though, he’s been in full speed ahead since halftime at Elon on March 6, and people are starting to take notice.

No question about it, the Dukes had their problems against Robert Morris on Feb. 27 and in that same Elon game. JMU struggled in the first half in both those games, and Cignetti said his role as a coach changed through the pandemic, but after watching the Dukes fall apart, he knew he had to get back to business.

“My role with the team had really changed quite a bit,” Cignetti said. “At the halftime of the Elon game, I said I’m done with this, and I was back into football and, you know, full speed ahead.” 

The game plan changed, and the COVID-19 pause did the players and coaches some good, as they reflected on the first three weeks and realized what they needed to do to be better. Against the Tribe, fans saw a different JMU team — one they had come to know. Cignetti got back to his roots, and the players all worked by the same idea — every game is a playoff game.

Heading into its regular-season finale on CAA championship Saturday, JMU can’t let up the gas. This team coming in isn't Elon or Wiliam & Mary. This is a team fighting to make the Sweet 16 of the FCS. Richmond is potentially a loss away from elimination and will throw everything at the Dukes. JMU sees the playoffs now it just has to execute.

Even though the Dukes sat another two weeks by default of other teams' COVID-19 protocols, they're stil in go mode and at full speed ahead. Playing at the level it did against the Tribe, JMU can beat the Spiders. It’s all about mentality, and now that the Dukes are getting the chance to prove themselves, they can’t let it go up in flames in front of the home crowd.

3. Players' perspective: Play in the present, but remember your roots

No doubt about it, the Dukes like their rivalry games, and they get excited at the chance to eliminate Richmond from the playoffs. Senior defensive lineman Mike Greene celebrates his senior day Saturday, and he gets to do it in front of limited fans, but nonetheless, it’s a semblance of normalcy.

Another part of normalcy for Greene is playing Richmond — his hometown — the team that always puts up a fight, and the team that seems to find ways to give the Dukes problems.

“We call it 'tick week',” Greene said. “Our [ are] coaches outside screaming it all week so we’re going hard, thinking about this rivalry, but it's still just another game for us."

Although as exciting as “tick week” may be for the players, the mindset stays as it always has — that this is just another game, except for the part where winning a spring championship is at stake.

Winning the CAA in 2021 means taking home the league’s first spring championship. In a year where games are constantly postponed and COVID-19 tests are a must, it seems impossible to have all the players in one place at the same time. To win the CAA this year is to be both physically and mentality in tact, and that’s where JMU takes it week by week, one game at a time.

“It's really been a more mental thing,” Greene said. “It's been a lot of fixing the mistakes … and fixing up the minor things so we don’t get hit with that again.”

While taking down the Spiders is always fun, players know that this week, they need to be locked in. Just like the William & Mary game, all eyes will be on JMU football. The players know to play in the present and not let mistakes come back to get them, while at the same time acknowledging everything it took to get to his point, reflect on it and then realize how far the Dukes havecome.

This week will be exciting. It’s senior day, fans are back and the Spiders are in town. At the same time, it was a long road to get here, — and now it's JMU's chance to show it was all worth it.

4. Editor’s input: Get ticked off

This is the moment JMU has been waiting for — a chance to win the division while knocking off one of its oldest rivals.

No, it’s not fair that the Dukes only played half of their original schedule. It’s not fair that COVID-19 separated the team in all ways and that it’s almost impossible to carry tasks as one group. So, JMU needs to take that rage and put it into play.

This is Richmond. This isn’t just another team the Dukes are playing to end the year; this is the team that wants to see them fall. It’s what rivalries are made of, and with the stakes this high Saturday, a victory would be even sweeter.

JMU has fans in the stadium; that’s something that can’t be overlooked. Yes, it’s only at 30% capacity but there’ll be alumni, students and, who could forget, the Marching Royal Dukes? JMU can win the division in its stadium in front of the JMU nation over a rival team. Could there be a more perfect ending to a far from perfect season?

Cignetti says to control the controllables, and that’s what this is. The players are ready, the fans are ready and the city of Harrisonburg is ready for its Dukes. This is JMU’s game. How they choose to play, that’s up to them — one thing for sure, though, is that they need to be ticked off.

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