JMU football (2-1) is set to begin a three-game road trip that will carry the Dukes into CAA play. First up, the final non-conference game of the season against Chattanooga, where JMU will play in the stadium where it claimed its first FCS National Championship 15 years ago.
The Dukes are scheduled to face a Mocs team that’s seen struggles the past two weeks. Chattanooga returns home following two games on the road where it was outscored by opponents 86-20.
1. Back on track: Preview of Chattanooga
Chattanooga’s first defeat came at the hands of Jacksonville State in Week 2 by a score of 41-20. The next came seven days later when the team fell to in-state opponent Tennessee, 45-0.
The Mocs return to Finley Stadium with their sights set on getting back to .500, but will face another hard test in No. 2 JMU. The two teams have never been pitted against each other, with the Dukes’ only experience at Chattanooga coming in that 2004 FCS title game.
“[We’re] getting ready for a good James Madison team,” Chattanooga head coach Rusty Wright said in a press conference. “That’ll probably be one of the best football teams to play in Finley in a long time … It’s a good football team top to bottom, both sides of the football and in the kicking game.”
In the last two weeks, Chattanooga has forfeited 1,239 yards of total offense off only 208 plays, allowing teams to average six yards a snap. On the other side of the ball, the Mocs’ offense has struggled to match that of their counterparts, posting 880 yards of offense on only 12 fewer plays.
Wright and his team will be tasked with containing a JMU offense that’s exploded the last two weeks, scoring an average of 40 points per game while its opponents have only managed 13. Behind redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci, the Dukes look poised to make a strong run into CAA play — one the Mocs hope to hinder.
The Mocs need to get their offense started early against one of the best defenses in the nation if they want a shot at the win. To do that, Wright wants his passing game established early. Last week against Tennessee, senior quarterback Nick Tiano completed only four of his 16 passes for 40 yards and two interceptions. Junior quarterback and Old Dominion transfer Drayton Arnold saw his first snaps in a Chattanooga jersey but didn’t fare much better than Tiano. Arnold threw just five completions for 36 yards and two picks.
“We got to be able to throw it out there, and we got to be able to catch it,” Wright said. “I don’t know much about Morgan State and Saint Francis except for watching film on them. I don’t know how good they are from week to week, so I’m hoping we’re a little better than those guys.”
2. Coach’s corner: Prepare for a push
Head coach Curt Cignetti and his team will need to grapple with another opponent along with the Mocs this Saturday. The forecast shows a high of 89 degrees at 4 p.m. when the games get underway.
It’s likely going to be the hottest game JMU has played this season, and it’s one Cignetti and his staff can’t replicate in order to prepare for.
“It's hard to simulate it when it's 68 degrees out here,” Cignetti joked after practice Tuesday.
He did say they’d ready themselves for the temperature with pushing hydration in the 48 hours leading into the weekend.
On the field, JMU has thrived the last two weeks. The team has managed over 40 points in its two home games and has seen improvement in the red zone after settling for field goals more often than Cignetti wanted to see.
Cignetti’s team has outscored its opponents 120-39, with the Dukes scores coming from a staggering 11 different players. That stat gets even more impressive when one looks at who’s scoring for the Dukes.
Six different running backs have seen carries out of the backfield. Five of those have scored at least one touchdown. But, only two of those players have scored on the ground.
JMU has relied heavily on its running backs being a threat not only on the ground, but in the air. Cignetti wants to continue using his backs in multiple ways across the offense, citing the pressure it puts on the opponent’s defense.
“If you can throw the ball to the running back ... stretch the field in the passing game, you're putting more stress on the defense,” Cignetti said. “From an offensive perspective, it's all about putting stress on people, you know, in the pass game or the RPO game.”
3. Player’s perspective: Stay focused on goal and do your job
As JMU prepares for its final non-conference game of the season, the players are aware they’re slated to face a team that’s determined to turn its early season struggles into a win. While the Dukes are the favorite to take this game, they’re not overlooking it.
“We know that's a very good football team,” redshirt junior running back Jawon Hamilton said. “We can't take those guys lightly at all … They have great guys with great ability, so we know we got to go out there and play top-notch JMU football.”
To help reach that level, the Dukes will add three key players to their arsenal to help combat the Mocs’ readiness for a win.
One of the biggest additions is redshirt senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton, who’s returning after a three-game suspension. The return of senior cornerback Charles Tutt and junior cornerback Taurus Carroll will help bolster the JMU secondary after redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson went down last Saturday with an injury.
The reintegration of that trio will only benefit JMU this weekend and throughout the remainder of the season.
Paired with the return of key players is the athletes’ determination to continue the strong play the Dukes have shown early this year. For senior defensive lineman John Daka, he’s locking his eyes on finishing the sack.
“I have to finish to help the team,” Daka said. “That's something I can't keep doing.”
The defense as a unit has been solid. The Dukes are currently the No. 4 team in the nation on holding teams on third down, allowing opponents to pick up a fresh set of downs 22% of the time. The Mocs have been decent on third downs so far in 2019, converting 41% of their third downs.
“Third down’s the money down,” Daka said. “[The Mocs] do a good job of sticking to their game plan, so we just have to go out there and play our brand of defense, and we just have to get them more in third-and-long situations.”
JMU has the ability to make an impact on this game early. Through three games this season, Chattanooga has struggled on controlling teams on special teams. The Mocs have allowed 15 yards on the return off only seven kickoffs, and opponents are averaging over 10 yards on the return for punts. Last week, the Vols even managed a punt return for a touchdown off the Mocs.
If the Dukes want to attack early off a kickoff, they have the means to do it. Hamilton and redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk are a power duo on kickoff returns. The two have combined for 155 yards off only four returns.
“I think we set our offense up in great field position,” Hamilton said. “If we get the ball kicked to us on, like, the 10-yard line, I'm very confident that me or Brandon would at least run back to at least the 35- or 40-yard line.”
4. Editor’s input: Stay healthy ahead of hard CAA opener
Much like the Dukes did in 2004, they’ll leave Finley Stadium victorious. The Mocs will provide a stronger game for the Dukes than they’ve seen in the last two weeks, but it won’t be enough to keep JMU from getting to 3-1 on the season.
What’s most important for Cignetti and Co. this weekend is leaving Chattanooga injury-free. The Dukes have a tough few weeks ahead, starting with a trip to Elon, which will mark Cignetti’s return to the school after leaving the program for JMU.
Against Morgan State, Robinson went down during the first half of the game and didn’t return. While Cignetti has said Robinson is day-to-day, the Dukes can’t afford to risk an injury this weekend.
The Dukes need to remain healthy in order to knock off an Elon (2-1) team that handed them their first CAA loss in 20 games last season. After Elon, the schedule doesn’t get easier for the Dukes as they head to Long Island to face off with Stony Brook (3-0) before returning to Harrisonburg to welcome Villanova (3-0).
For this weekend, expect the offense to continue to use numerous athletes in its attack, and look for the defense to maintain its status as one of the best in the FCS. JMU wins, 37-10.
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.