For the sixth consecutive season, playoff football is back at Bridgeforth Stadium. Of the 12 tests the Dukes faced, they passed 11, finishing the regular season with an 11-1 (8-0 CAA) record. On the back of a CAA title-winning season and a No. 2 seed in the 2019 FCS Playoffs, JMU will have its next test Saturday, where it’ll face playoff newcomer Monmouth.
1. The opponent's locker room: Hawks look to shock the Dukes
Monmouth isn’t seeded, but JMU is the No. 2 seed. Monmouth has never made the playoffs before this season. JMU has been in it 16 times. On paper, the two programs are night and day when it comes to being an FCS power. However, it’s matchups like this that test up-and-coming teams like Monmouth.
After being snubbed in last year’s playoffs, the Hawks look to prove what they’re made of by coming to Harrisonburg and leaving victorious. They’ll have to do it behind junior running back Pete Guerriero, who’s rushed for over 200 yards on four occasions.
Guerriero leads the nation in rushing yards with 1,888, which is 275 yards more than the second-best rusher. He has 17 touchdowns on the ground and has caught two more. His speed and agility at the line of scrimmage are what cause teams fits, but Monmouth hasn’t faced a rush defense like JMU’s.
“Their offense, I think structurally, is very similar to ours with the RPOs and the type of runs that they do run,” JMU head coach Curt Cignetti said at O’Neill’s Grill on Monday. “They’ve done a nice job at creating a softer box, which has helped their run game. But look, they got a really good offensive line … When you look at their offensive line, they’re long and they’re lean. Their average size is 6-5, 295 lbs.”
Because the Dukes will target Guerriero and try to shut down the Hawks’ rushing attack, redshirt senior quarterback Kenji Bahar will be a key in the game as well. The 2019 Big South Player of the Year averages over 270 passing yards per game and boasts 29 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. The Bahar-Guerriero duo will have all eyes on them come Saturday, putting the pressure on MU.
“We’re looking forward to stopping the run and forcing the quarterback to throw,” senior safety Adam Smith said. “I think this is the most accurate quarterback that we’ve faced all year.”
The Dukes’ secondary has seen quality quarterbacks with their tough schedule. West Virginia’s redshirt junior Austin Kendall and Towson’s redshirt senior Tom Flacco have tested JMU, preparing them for whatever is thrown at them during postseason play.
The Big South champs have the opportunity to enter Bridgeforth and stun the FCS. The task may be big, but with Bahar and Guerriero ready to attack with a potent offense, JMU will have its hands full.
2. Coach’s corner: Preparation stays the same no matter the month
Throughout the regular season, Cignetti always discussed his one-game-at-a-time mentality that he instilled into his team. He never looked forward or backward, just on the team waiting for him on the coming Saturday. That won’t change because of the playoffs.
“It feels like December, and we’re getting ready for our next game,” Cignetti said. “If there was a magic way to prepare for the playoffs, we would do it.”
At O’Neill’s, Cignetti wasn’t afraid to note Monmouth’s veteran-laden team, citing its offensive line being a cornerstone in the Hawks’ success. He also went as far as saying it was the best team in MU’s history. The Hawks finished the regular season at 10-2 (6-0 Big South) with their only losses being to FBS Western Michigan and current-No. 6 seed Montana. MU has also beaten two teams that remain in the playoffs: a 38-35 overtime decision against Albany and a commanding 45-21 trouncing of then-No. 4 Kennesaw State.
One thing Cignetti is concerned about is the layoff the team had over the first-round bye. The players were let go last Wednesday for a miniature Thanksgiving break and returned Sunday to begin preparation for Monmouth. Following practice Tuesday, Cignetti said the team is 2-for-2 when it comes to having good practices that week.
An important note for Saturday’s contest is the difference in either team’s veteran players. Monmouth’s upperclassmen have helped build their program, but they lack any postseason experience. For the Dukes, the players on the team haven’t played a season where they aren’t in the playoffs.
“Anytime you do something the second time, you’re better than where you were the first time,” Cignetti said. “Some of these guys have been in the playoffs for three years, maybe redshirted so four years, so we’re a veteran team, but we’re playing a veteran team.”
Cignetti will hope to earn his first FCS playoff victory as a head coach Saturday in what is the first step in the Dukes’ journey to Frisco, Texas.
3. Player’s perspective: The most wonderful time of the year
All season long, players have been waiting to get to the playoffs. Not only do the Dukes have a National Championship they wish to obtain, but they want to put last year’s shortcoming against Colgate to rest.
But they can’t think about that.
As Cignetti preaches, the team must focus on what’s now. Last year is in the past, but the only way the players can respond is to take care of what’s in front of them.
“That’s the mindset we have throughout the entire year; we have to take it one step at a time, one day at a time,” junior defensive lineman Liam Fornadel said. “We can’t be too pumped for anything because it’s just another game. It is playoffs, it’s higher stakes, and we understand that and realize that, but we gotta keep doing what we’ve been doing, and that’s being level-headed.”
Maintaining emotions is always important during the playoffs. In intense situations, players must know how to keep their emotions in check. Smith said those emotions come from wanting the ultimate prize: a trip to Frisco and the program’s third FCS title.
In order to get to Toyota Stadium, JMU’s veterans need to take control and handle adversity thrown at them. As December rolls on, it may not be pure skill that is the difference, but rather the mental strength of players.
“Intangibles are key,” Fornadel said. “You can be talented and all this, you can have all the speed, but if you don’t know what you’re doing when they’re showing something different or they’re lined up not like they’re used to, the intangibles carry you. They carry you through all that.”
The Dukes are eager to play in front of a home crowd throughout the playoffs, but they know they have to remain locked in so they can continue to host games this year. For them, they don’t have two more potential games to play on Zane Showker Field — they have one game that they’re preparing for.
“In the playoffs, you have to be ready for anything,” Smith said. “They’ve had time to put in some extra things that we may not have seen yet. When it’s playoffs, and it’s win or go home, they’re willing to do anything.”
4. Editors’ input: Home, sweet home
It’s no secret that Monmouth is playing the role of Cinderella, hoping to dance its way through the playoffs. JMU has other ideas, and despite a bye week shaking up momentum built from an 11-game win streak, the Dukes should take care of business.
Redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci took home the CAA’s Offensive Player of the Year award, and redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter earned the Defensive Player of the Year honor. Both are players that will be critical for the Dukes come Saturday, but they’ll also be in the comfort of their home stadium.
The Hawks will test JMU and be a good benchmark for potential games to come, but the Dukes will win 52-14 and advance to host the winner of Northern Iowa and South Dakota State.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.