It’s almost fitting that the last home game of JMU football's 2019 season will be against in-state rival Richmond with the CAA title on the line.
The historic rivalry sits at 18 wins apiece with each program looking to take advantage of the series this weekend.
1. The opponent's locker room: preview of Richmond
At this point in the season, teams playing against the Dukes should know what they’re getting into, like being tasked with limiting an offense that’s continued to improve with each game while also needing to find a way to break the No. 4 defense in the country.
The same goes for Richmond. Saturday will mark the third time head coach Russ Huesman will face the Dukes, but he has more experience than that against JMU. Huesman’s been an assistant coach at Richmond and William & Mary — both CAA rivals of JMU.
“James Madison and Richmond's a great rivalry, and it's always fun to go up there and play,” Huesman said on the CAA Football Media Teleconference. “It's a tough place to play in, [and] their crowd does an unbelievable job, and they play well at home.”
Much of what Huesman sees as JMU’s strengths is the numerous redshirt juniors and seniors on the roster. Last year, the Dukes didn’t lose many players to graduation, and through 10 games this season, that’s shown to be impactful.
JMU’s continuously pressured teams on both offense and defense, and with its experience, even when it seems like the Dukes might break, they bounce back.
“That's a formula for success right there when you're playing with older guys,” Huesman said. “They're unbelievably athletic on both sides of the ball … We got our work cut out for us, and they got a good, experienced football team and an older team, and they're playing like it.”
When Saturday comes, Richmond knows what it’s playing for. The Spiders still have a shot at the CAA title and a place in the postseason. Last season saw Richmond struggle, and this year, it has the possibility to change how last season finished. But, still in the Spiders’ way are their two biggest rivals, JMU and William & Mary, Huesman said.
“James Madison gets everybody's best shot,” Huesman said. “Everybody's excited to play them … But just jumping up and down, whooping and hollering before the game or in the locker room is not going to give you a chance to win that game. It's how you prepare during the week, taking care of your bodies, and how you practice and prepare and film study.”
2. Coach’s corner: Finish the task at hand
It may be Curt Cignetti’s first go-round with Richmond as JMU’s head coach, but he understands the rivalry. In fact, he’s already faced Richmond twice while at Elon.
Both those games ended with a win.
It’s also Cignetti, and he’s not thinking too much about who this weekend’s opponent is. He preaches to his team that each weekend’s competition needs to be viewed as a “faceless opponent.”
“It is just another game,” Cignetti said. “Now, it is an in-state rival, and there are things that will happen if we're successful, and it is the last regular-season game at home. But, from our perspective, we're getting ready to play another football game.”
Like Cignetti alluded to, if JMU finds itself victorious against the Spiders, the Dukes will win the CAA title outright — they won’t be sharing it with other teams.
JMU fell short last season in terms of the CAA title race. It was the first time since 2014 that the Dukes didn’t even get a share of the title. While they’re guaranteed at least that this season, it’s not enough for them. JMU wants the title to itself, but even with that, Cignetti’s making sure the team stays locked in.
“It's certainly always a goal,” Cignetti said on the CAA Football Media Teleconference. “I think focusing on the things we can control, and that's our preparation and our performance, and then everything else will take care of itself.”
If the Dukes want the CAA crown all to themselves, they first need to beat Richmond, and JMU has the skillset to do that. As the season’s progressed, the Dukes have continued to grow, showcasing talent that’s garnering national recognition.
This weekend, JMU’s up against the second-most efficient passer in the conference — redshirt junior Joe Mancuso. The Blairsville, Georgia, native is second to redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci in passer efficiency with a 154.9 rating. Mancuso is also the leading rusher for the Spiders and has 12 touchdown passes.
“They got a nice scheme [and] do a lot of different things that create conflict for you on defense,” Cignetti said. “He's a very valuable guy. He’s tough, and he can take the shots and still deliver the ball in the pass game, too.”
3. Player’s perspective: Embrace the rivalry, but be ready to play
There’s almost a unanimous understanding that most games between these two schools will be nail-biters that are decided in the final minutes.
“It's kind of hard to explain,” senior linebacker Landan Word said. “It's gonna be a hard-fought battle, and you have to know that every single year that you play Richmond. They're coming up here this year expecting a win. They're not coming up here to lose.”
Along with the rivalry, Saturday’s contest will also play host to the seniors’ final regular-season game at Bridgeforth Stadium. Senior center Mac Patrick said the festivities will be on their minds, but they’re focusing more on the game.
“I honestly don’t think about game day until game day,” Patrick said. “[I] just try to focus on each day, every practice. I mean, obviously, it does loom on you. It's your last regular-season game. Hopefully, we have a lot more games here at Bridgeforth.”
In recent weeks, Patrick and the JMU offense have found their game. The unit is coming off a game that saw redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci throw for over 300 yards and two touchdowns, which earned him CAA Offensive Player of the Week.
The Wexford, Pennsylvania, native has thrived during his redshirt senior campaign. Following a season that saw DiNucci struggle, he’s responded by throwing for 2,244 yards, 17 touchdowns and only four interceptions, compared to 2,275 yards, 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season.
“He’s definitely being overlooked,” Patrick said. “I personally think he's the best offensive player in our complete conference. But, I mean, I know Ben; he's not worried about the accolades. He's more worried about numbers in the win column. That's why he's probably been so successful so far.”
The JMU offensive line will be tasked with handling the No. 2 team in the conference in sacks, with Richmond boasting 26 sacks on the season, second to the Dukes. Through 10 games this season, however, JMU has only allowed 17 sacks, tied for fourth in the CAA.
“They're a good group, really skillful, physical,” Patrick said. “We have to have a great sense of detail every day in practice and watching film even more for them because they're so much better than other teams in the pass rush.”
For the JMU defense, Richmond’s offense has changed over the past few weeks. There have been injuries to the running back position throughout the regular season, leading to the Spiders’ quarterback having the highest rushing totals on the season with 558 yards.
“Their quarterback is going to be their key player,” Word said. “He makes a lot of plays; he can extend the play. The biggest thing for us is [to] create a one-dimensional offense for Richmond … The first quarter is really going to be essential for us to set the tone, and by doing that, we’ll dictate what they do for the rest of the game.”
It’s not a good thing to be limited in the rush attack heading into Bridgeforth Stadium. The Dukes have proven all season that teams aren’t going to be able to get the run game started against them.
Last week, New Hampshire put up 93 yards on the ground against JMU — the second-highest total the Dukes have allowed this season. Against the Wildcats, most of New Hampshire’s rushing yards came in the opening quarter. And after the first 15 minutes, the Dukes shut their opponent down, showing they can limit any team, any week, which will be key against Richmond.
4. Editors’ input: The rivalry adds to the game
It’s one of the best weeks of the season — Richmond week. One of the top rivalries in the CAA is coming to the forefront, and this season, there are stakes on the line.
Usually, the matchup between JMU and Richmond comes late in the season when both seem to be in the mix of the title race. However, last season featured a Week 5 game between the two schools where playoff implications weren’t even close to being on their minds.
This year, it’s different.
JMU claimed at least a share of the CAA title with the win against New Hampshire and is hungry to hold the title outright. The only remaining team that can get its hand on the trophy with the Dukes is Richmond.
Saturday’s matchup should be fun for those in attendance — it’s a rivalry for a reason. With JMU determined to win the CAA title after falling short a year ago, the Dukes’ energy should push them over the top. JMU wins, 42-17.
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.