It’s been almost 12 months since that game. The game where Elon won its first game in Bridgeforth Stadium. The game that saw JMU football’s 20-game win streak against CAA opponents snapped. The game that ended 19-straight home wins.
But, it’s a new season now, equipped with a new staff — much of which walked the visitor’s sideline of Zane Showker Field during that game last season.
JMU football is composed of players who would rather focus on the week ahead other than past results. But, the memory of their 27-24 loss to Elon last season still lingers, ingrained in the backs of their minds.
Saturday’s contest won’t only be about avenging that loss nearly 365 days ago; it’ll also be head coach Curt Cignetti’s return to the stadium where he spent two seasons leading the Phoenix.
1. Return of the Phoenix: A preview of Elon football
Following Elon’s victory over JMU last October, the Phoenix got hit with numerous injuries. The team lost both star quarterback Davis Cheek to a knee injury and starting running back Malcolm Summers last October in the weeks following the victory against the Dukes.
While trying to absorb the loss of its two stars on offense, Cignetti’s former team struggled to find traction for the remainder of the season, losing four of its last six games. And, after the season ended, the Phoenix had to deal with Cignetti’s departure for the purple and gold.
Under new head coach Tony Trisciani, who was Cignetti’s assistant coach both years at Elon, the Phoenix currently sit at .500 through four games.
“I learned a lot from Curt Cignetti — he’s a real good football coach,” Trisciani said. “He’s a very good leader, good motivator for the players and the staff … I learned that sometimes, less is more. Focus on a few things — the things that are important — and do them right, [and] do them well.”
Though there’s a level of familiarity between the two head coaches, that’s not changing how Trisciani prepares for Saturday’s matchup. Cignetti brought new coordinators to Harrisonburg who didn’t work with him at Elon, something Trisciani said will make Cignetti’s team different from what he saw when they worked together.
Trisciani also recognizes that the JMU football team has talent running through its roster no matter who’s leading the program on to the field. The Phoenix will be tasked with limiting redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci and the offense, which has been difficult for opponents to stop early in the season.
DiNucci currently leads the FCS for completion percentage out of quarterbacks who’ve played in four games, finding his receivers 74% of the time. The Wexford, Pennsylvania, native also has the highest passing efficiency (181) in the CAA. DiNucci has weapons at his disposal whether it’s in the run or passing game.
“They’ve got a dual-threat quarterback in DiNucci who can extend plays, and he’s a tough guy to get on the ground,” Trisciani said. “He’s got some big receivers outside, and he’s got some speed too, with the addition of Brandon Polk.”
2. Coach’s corner: Don’t let the opponent be a distraction
Cignetti has been asked about this game since the time he settled into his new position at JMU. But, Cignetti doesn’t let his mind wander to it too much. He’s said in the past the key is to keep the opponent faceless.
Throughout the week, too, Cignetti has kept his comments on his former program limited, more concerned with his current roster and how he can lead them to a win Saturday.
“You’re just trying to put your guys in the best position to be successful,” Cignetti said during the CAA Football Media Teleconference on Monday. “They’re trying to do the same thing, and, at the end of the day, the team that executes the best will come on top.”
Last week, JMU showed its strength on the road. But, it also showed areas for concern that Cignetti wants to improve before the Dukes travel south to Elon.
Against Chattanooga, JMU’s defense didn’t tackle as well as it had earlier in the season. There were missed opportunities to bring down Chattanooga’s players, something that helped lead to the Mocs tying the game in the first quarter.
Improvement in tackling this week will help JMU in its goal to make Elon one-dimensional this weekend. The Dukes currently boast the third-best rush defense in the FCS, which Cignetti wants to see continue this weekend against his former school. JMU hasn’t allowed over 100 yards rushing this season and will face a team that averages 129.8 yards per game, making for an exciting matchup.
“If you can make a team one-dimensional, that’s half the battle right there,” Cignetti said. “Then, it’s just a matter of stopping the forward pass.”
3. Player’s perspective: Start early and start fast
If there’s one aspect of the JMU defense that could improve, it’s forcing turnovers. If there’s one thing the Elon offense does well, it’s keeping possession. Under Cheek, Elon has turned the ball over just once off a fumble — Cheek has yet to throw an interception this season.
“Davis Cheek is a smart quarterback,” Ron’Dell Carter, redshirt senior defensive lineman, said. “He’s one of the smartest quarterbacks I’ve played against … he reads coverages well; he does checkdowns well … he picks up blitzes well, [and] he doesn’t turn the ball over at all.”
And it’s not just being able to keep the ball in Elon’s hands that Cheek does well. So far through the 2019 season, Cheek has helped his team thrive in red zone play.
In Elon’s 10 trips to the opponent’s red zone this season, the Phoenix have scored a touchdown nine of those times. Even against Wake Forest — an FBS matchup — Elon’s one trip to the red zone ended with seven points.
“Hopefully, they don’t get in the red zone … and that’s on us,” Carter said. “If they had those kind of numbers in the red zone, you got to make sure they don’t get in the red zone if [they’re] pretty successful at it.”
For the JMU offense, last season’s game against the Phoenix wasn’t great, even with DiNucci throwing for 316 yards. The Dukes struggled to finish drives, settling for four field goals and only recording two touchdowns late in the game during the fourth quarter.
In last year’s loss to Elon, the running backs struggled to get their feet under them. By the conclusion of the game, the Dukes only had 103 rushing yards for an average of 2.6 yards per carry. Junior running back Percy Agyei-Obese, who didn’t see any carries against Elon last season, recognizes the offense needs to get started early and fast in order to knock off a ranked program.
“We know what type of team they are,” Agyei-Obese said. “They’re hard workers. They’ll get after us, and we’ll get after them. And, we know that every play that they’ll be working and the hard-nosed football team.”
Agyei-Obese can provide a spark for the Dukes’ run game. The true junior is coming off a game that saw him rush for over 100 yards — the first JMU player to hit that mark this season — and he also found the end zone two times against Chattanooga.
Redshirt freshman Solomon Vanhorse, redshirt junior Jawon Hamilton and Agyei-Obese are a lethal combination against the Phoenix. They’re preparing to face an Elon team that’s allowed 149.8 rushing yards per game and has given up six rushing touchdowns this season.
JMU’s offense is fully capable of being the best in the CAA this season. It’ll face a tough task in Elon this weekend, but with DiNucci paired with experienced players both out of the backfield and on the flanks, Agyei-Obese believes this unit will be difficult for any opponent to limit.
“We have a lot of weapons,” Agyei-Obese said. “This offense is not too readable by the defense. They can’t just … be like, ‘Oh, they’re gonna run the ball, they’re going to pass the ball.’ We could switch it up at any time.”
4. Editor’s input: A new JMU team is ready for the task
This game is going to be a good one. While Cignetti & Co. may not pay attention to most of the external factors of this contest, fans will, and it’ll add to the excitement.
If there’s anything to take from how Cignetti and his players have presented themselves over the past week, it’s that they’re ready to face Elon this weekend. This team isn’t just anxious to play against a team that defeated them last year — the group is ready to compete against CAA programs.
Both Carter and Agyei-Obese emphasized that the CAA is the best conference in the FCS, and they’re probably not wrong. The CAA currently has the most teams ranked in the Top-25 with six, and that’s for good reason.
There’s an understanding among the players that any other team in this conference can win any game. Because of that, the Dukes aren’t looking past Elon and are trying to avoid letting any past experiences affect them.
On Saturday, JMU will be just fine. The Dukes have been calm so far this season and haven’t let a game get too big, even against an FBS opponent. If JMU’s star players show up and play like they’ve been doing early in the season, it’ll walk away with its fourth win of the year. JMU wins, 27-10.
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.