It’s another week, and JMU football (8-1, 5-0 CAA) is preparing for yet another top-25 CAA matchup. This week’s opponent is New Hampshire (5-3, 4-1 CAA), the same team that knocked off the Dukes a little over a year ago. This season’s showdown will have the Dukes at home, coming off their bye week.
New Hampshire comes into this weekend’s contest as the No. 23 team in the country and has won five of its last six games. The Wildcats sit only one spot behind the Dukes in the CAA standings with a 4-1 conference record.
1. Containing the Wildcats: preview of New Hampshire
It’s been an interesting season so far for the Wildcats. Just days before New Hampshire’s season was supposed to get underway, its long-time head coach Sean McDonnell had to step away for health reasons, which passed the reins to Ricky Santos.
Under the interim coach, the Wildcats have exceeded preseason expectations and currently threaten JMU for the top spot in the CAA. This weekend’s game in Harrisonburg will prove one of the hardest the Wildcats have faced this season.
When asked on the CAA Football Media Teleconference on Monday, Santos kept his response rather simple to start when asked what stands out about JMU.
“That they have no weaknesses,” Santos said. “They’re very good; they’re very balanced.”
New Hampshire has yet to face a defense quite like the one the Dukes present. Behind defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman, the JMU defense has picked up right where it left off a season ago.
JMU currently boasts the No. 2 rush defense in the nation, while being the home of two players ranked in the top-10 for tackles for loss — redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter and senior defensive lineman John Daka. Carter’s 17.5 TFLs not only has him in the No. 1 spot in the FCS but tied for the most in all of Division-I football.
“They can stop the run, they can get to the passer, linebackers are physical and their secondary does a great job of mixing up man and zone,” Santos said. “They’re very well-coached. Coach Hetherman does a tremendous job.”
New Hampshire is currently fourth in the country for interceptions with 13 and will face redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci this weekend, who’s taken better care of the ball this season than a year ago. Last season, DiNucci threw 12 interceptions in 13 games. Through nine games this year, the Wexford, Pennsylvania, native has only been picked off four times.
Santos understands that his team will need to limit an “explosive playmaker at the quarterback position.” The Wildcats’ defensive line will also need to find its way around one of the best offensive fronts in the nation in order to get to DiNucci.
2. Coach’s corner: back in action
It’s almost like wash, rinse and repeat with head coach Curt Cignetti’s approach to the game. He won’t address a game further ahead than the one that weekend, and he keeps his approach to each down the same.
And so far, that philosophy has worked well for the Dukes.
In his first season with the team, Cignetti has put together one of the best records he’s seen during his head coaching career. With JMU currently sitting at No. 2 in the country with playoff rankings released Wednesday night, the postseason looks promising, but right now, Cignetti’s focus is on New Hampshire.
“I’m sure I’ll see it somewhere,” Cignetti said on the rankings. “It really don’t matter where you are right now; it only matters where you are in the end.”
Coming to town is a New Hampshire team looking to knock the Dukes off for a second season in a row and move into the top spot in the CAA. While the Wildcats are only sitting on a 5-3 record, four of those wins have come in conference — three of which are also against teams JMU has already played this season.
New Hampshire’s offense hasn’t jumped off the stat sheet this year, but the team has still found its way to the win column. The Wildcats are currently at the bottom of the CAA in scoring, averaging only 20.1 points a game, while being fifth in rush offense, 10th in pass offense and ninth in total offense.
“Offensively [they] played their best half [of] football the second half against Villanova,” Cignetti said. “They got to be feeling pretty good about themselves the way they played, and the quarterback completing 10 straight passes and running backs really do run hard.”
There hasn’t been much to complain about for JMU through nine games. The Dukes have their near-perfect record, players are making the right plays and the coaches continue to lead the team to wins. But, as the season continues, the coaches still see room to grow. On the weekly teleconference, Cignetti even said it’s him and his staff’s job to build a program where the players can succeed, and he knows his players see their potential to grow.
A prime example of a player continuing to improve as the season goes on is DiNucci. A second-year starter with the program, DiNucci has become one of the top quarterbacks in the country, earning his way onto the College Football Performance Awards FCS Performer of the Year.
“Ben’s made a lot of positive plays — a lot of great plays,” Cignetti said. “But, he’ll also be the first to tell you that there’s still improvement in his game that can be made, and that’s everybody on the field. As good as some of these guys have played, nobody has really played the perfect game or has played 100% up to their full ability or potential yet.”
3. Player’s perspective: eager to get back to football
While a bye week provides days of shorter practices and more time to catch up on sleep and homework, the JMU football players are ready to get back onto the field at Bridgeforth Stadium.
“It’s always good to be back in Bridgeforth,” redshirt senior quarterback Rashad Robinson said. “It’s coming down to an end for the regular season, at least … It’s gonna be a packed house Saturday for a big game.”
It’ll be important that the Dukes don’t start slow coming out of the bye. In games that New Hampshire scores first, the Wildcats are 4-1, highlighting the importance of JMU getting on the board first.
“Everyone needs to stay focused,” junior running back Percy Agyei-Obese said. “We can’t just ease back … the game. We got to be on point every single day. We got to come out every day this week and practice, work hard and just [pay] attention to detail.”
The JMU defense will be going against a true freshman quarterback coming out of the bye in Max Brosmer. While the Roswell, Georgia, native may be in his first collegiate season, he isn’t playing like it.
Brosmer is coming off a performance against then-No.11 Villanova that earned him CAA Rookie of the Week while posting career-high stats. He completed 25 of his 32 pass attempts, throwing for 276 yards and three touchdowns.
“I mean, it’s kind of different,” Robinson said on preparing for a freshman quarterback. “But the way he’s been playing, he doesn’t play like a typical freshman. He’s very patient with the ball, and he plays good within their scheme, so we just try to treat him just like every other [quarterback]we scout every week.”
For the Dukes’ offense, which currently leads the CAA in rushing and is No. 9 in the FCS, it’ll be another weekend going up against a defense that’s good against the rush. New Hampshire has the fourth-best rush defense in the CAA, allowing only 136.2 yards a game.
This won’t be the first time this season JMU faces a good run defense, though. Almost every CAA team has done a good job limiting the rush until having to face the Dukes. With four strong running backs coming out of the backfield for JMU, most opponents have struggled to hinder the Dukes’ ground attack.
“Definitely with coach Cignetti, he wants to lead the nation in rushing,” Agyei-Obese said. “We’re all behind them on that, and we literally take the whole thing to heart. We don’t care what stats the other teams have against the rushing, we’re going out there and we’re going to play our game.”
4. Editors’ input: start fast after week off
JMU was tasked with battling through a tough nine-game stretch before it got its week off. The extended period of games saw the Dukes battle an FBS opponent and four ranked FCS teams. When JMU finally made it to the bye week, the team had amassed a strong 8-1 record, and it was perfect in conference play.
Now back in action, the Dukes have three more regular-season games — two of which are at home — before they turn their sights on another playoff run. While the playoffs are looming, JMU isn’t looking too far ahead. Right now, the focus is on New Hampshire — which it should be.
The Wildcats topped the Dukes just last season, which contributed to the Dukes not getting a share of the CAA title for the first time since 2014. With a week of rest, JMU should be just fine against New Hampshire.
In order to get another win over a ranked opponent, though, the Dukes will need to start fast. There have been a few times this season JMU hasn’t come out of the gate quickly, and against the Wildcats, that could be costly — evident in last season’s matchup. The Dukes will be fine, though, and should win, 37-10.
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.