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In the second part of its two-game homestand, JMU football will host Morgan State. Following a dominating 44-7 win over Saint Francis, the Dukes look to boast a winning record for the first time this season. 

This week, the Bears come to Bridgeforth Stadium having not won a game in the first three weeks of their season since 2016. JMU and Morgan State have met once in history — in 1995, when the Dukes won 76-7.

1.  Bear down: Preview of Morgan State

Morgan State has played one game in 2019: a 46-3 shellacking from an FBS opponent, Bowling Green. The Bears were out-gained by 280 yards on the ground and 270 yards through the air after only attempting nine passes. 

The last time the Bears boasted a winning record was 2014. It was also the only year the program made the FCS playoffs. However, their 7-6 mark five years ago was vacated. Since then, the program has experienced turmoil, culminating in the NCAA handing sanctions that prevented it from holding spring practice this year. 

“The message is ‘The opponent’s faceless,’” JMU head coach Curt Cignetti said. “Lock in on the present moment and control what we can control. You get better, or you get worse — you never stay the same.”

MSU throws different defensive schemes at its opponents and tries to get the job done on the ground offensively. Against Bowling Green, the Bears ran the ball 31 times out of 40 total plays. 

“They do a lot of different stuff,” redshirt junior wide receiver Jake Brown said. “We’re looking at personnel, what they did last year when they played CAA teams. They do a lot of different stuff on defense … We’re just going to go out there and do what we’re confident in.”

2.  Coach’s corner: JMU needs to polish its game

At his weekly fan and press luncheon at O’Neill’s in Harrisonburg, Cignetti mentioned there were many areas of his team’s performance he wanted to see cleaned up. Following practice Tuesday, he said there was good progress being made ahead of the team’s third game of the season. 

A key storyline so far this season is how deep the Dukes are. Four running backs received nine or more carries, totaling for 224 yards. While redshirt freshman Solomon Vanhorse began to see the majority of playing time, true freshman Austin Douglas, junior Percy Agyei-Obese and redshirt junior Jawon Hamilton contributed to the potent offense that was on display against Saint Francis. 

“I think [the running backs] understand that when they see the tailbacks carry the ball 47 times, that the carries are going to be divvied up,” Cignetti said. “Now, if we have one guy completely separate himself and we think he can take the hits, then that’s a totally different story. So, right now, if you look at the two games, the touches are pretty equally distributed.” 

JMU’s depth at the wide receiver position is also key, and with the return of redshirt senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton coming next week, the aerial attack should shape up to be one of the best in the FCS. Redshirt junior quarterback Cole Johnson also proved he can step in and put in a good performance after going 4-for-4 for 17 yards and a touchdown against Saint Francis. 

Depth helps every team keep its players healthy. The longer an athlete remains in the game, the chance of injury increases. Having the backups fill in gives players chances to develop with real-game experience. 

“My philosophy, the best coaches I’ve been around and their philosophy, is if you’re good enough to play winning football, you’re going to play regardless of where you are in the depth chart,” Cignetti said.

Cignetti wants to see his second-team players improve after their performance against the Red Flash. He said he wasn’t pleased with how they played once they came in but stated his players got the message of needed refinement. 

3. Player’s perspective: Keep the wins coming

Because the Bears don’t have much in-game film for the Dukes to dissect, it places more pressure on JMU to stay true to its own game plan and rely on making in-game adjustments.

“We’re confident. We do a good job in recognizing defense,” Brown said. “We go over a lot of film, and our defense plays a whole lot of different things, so we’re confident we’ll be able to recognize it and tweak our gameplan.”

Brown noted he feels the team can always play better, but the importance lies on finding different ways to consistently get stronger. He also mentioned JMU must do the little things in order to prevent major mistakes that could cost them wins.

Any team is happier following a win than a loss. JMU experienced that firsthand this week, but the players are still finding ways to stay focused on their next task at hand: Morgan State. 

However, momentum carries teams through the season, and with the Dukes coming off a commanding victory, the team is buzzing with excitement and is eager to get back onto the field. 

“We enjoy the feeling of winning, so we feel more compelled to do the same things we do but just keep on getting better to continue to win,” redshirt junior linebacker Kelvin Azanama said. 

4. Editor’s input: Final test before first FCS away game

After a tough Week 1 loss to West Virginia, the Dukes have the luxury of two home games before they had to hit the road again. Now 1-1, JMU prepares for Morgan State in its final tune-up before traveling to take on Chattanooga.

Cignetti preaches a one-play-at-a-time mentality. Following Saint Francis, he also had plenty of points of criticism for his team. The Bears provide a chance for JMU to iron out any issues before it gets into the meat of its schedule. 

JMU fans should load up on streamers for Saturday’s showdown as it should handle the Bears easily. In its last non-conference home game, JMU will defeat Morgan State, 62-3.

Contact Noah Ziegler at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

There comes a time where an athlete realizes their true potential. When I realized that I was never going to make a living on the court, I figured I’d make it on the sidelines. I hope to be able to attend and cover the World Cup and NCAA tournament.