For the second season in a row, JMU football is back in Harrisonburg still looking for its first win of the season, following a loss to an FBS opponent. With the 20-13 loss to West Virginia now behind them, the Dukes are ready to return home and play in front of a Bridgeforth Stadium crowd.
Awaiting JMU head coach Curt Cignetti and his team this Saturday is a Saint Francis (PA) program that narrowly escaped its matchup with Lehigh with a victory. The Red Flash enter Harrisonburg ready to face the No. 2 team in the nation, looking to start 2-0 for the first time since 2017.
1. Flash of skill: Previewing Saint Francis
The Red Flash enter this game after nearly losing to Lehigh at the start of the season for a second straight year. Their 14-13 victory would’ve been a loss if Lehigh senior kicker Austin Henning’s 40-yard field goal attempt hadn’t sailed right.
Following its win, Saint Francis is slated to play one of its hardest games of the season with JMU. The two programs have only met three times in their history. Every meeting between them has come since 2012 and has been in Harrisonburg.
When the Dukes and the Red Flash last met in September of 2014, Saint Francis kept the score respectable with JMU taking the game 38-22. The Dukes have won every meeting between the two teams by a combined score of 117-49.
This year’s game will feature arguably the most complete JMU team the Saint Francis program has seen. The Dukes have skill and ability on both sides of the ball, giving JMU the chance to win its first game of the 2019 season.
2. Coach’s corner: Keep relentless attitude, improve on mistakes
JMU’s performance against West Virginia on Saturday wasn’t a bad one. The Dukes held their own against a team from a Power Five conference that ended last season as the No. 20 team in the nation.
Even following a strong showing, to Cignetti and Co., a loss is a loss, and there are multiple aspects to the Dukes’ game they can improve come Saturday. Against the Mountaineers, there was a missed coverage for JMU that led to a WVU touchdown — one the Dukes couldn’t match.
“I think just communication and continuing to cut down on, you know, missed assignments,” Cignetti said Monday on the CAA Football Coaches Weekly Media Teleconference. “We didn’t have that many on defense, which I was really pleased with. We simplified our package, and we freed the kids up to play.”
Cignetti also cited room for growth in ball security during Monday’s call. Throughout the 2018 season, JMU fumbled 14 times, losing the ball nine of those times. In Saturday’s contest, the Dukes fumbled twice and lost possession both times — something that only happened twice in a single game last season.
Redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci also turned the ball over one time, throwing an interception early in the second half that led to a Mountaineer touchdown. Along with three turnovers, JMU also had a blocked field goal, which Cignetti wasn’t happy to see because of how well redshirt junior kicker Ethan Ratke has been performing during fall camp and practices.
“Obviously, ball security, not only on offense, but you know, on special teams [is important],” Cignetti said. “We dropped the first punt of the game. It was really not a very good decision to try to field the punt and gave them possession of the ball around the 35-yard line.”
While Cignetti is looking for his team to improve on past mistakes, the group isn’t dwelling too much on what’s behind them. With a new opponent ready to get their shot at the Dukes, Cignetti decided it’s time to focus on the future.
“Every day, we just want to get better and stay focused and locked in,” Cignetti said. “This team understands if we can stay locked in and walk off and feel better every day and stay on track throughout the course of the season that we’ve got a chance to be pretty good … We talk about it like being a novel — chapter one [is] in the books, and this is chapter two.”
3. Players’ perspective: Time to compete and win
Redshirt freshman running back Solomon Vanhorse and redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway both played a large part in JMU’s run game over the weekend. While Vanhorse was leading the Dukes on the ground, Holloway helped hold West Virginia to only 34 rushing yards.
Vanhorse and the running backs are set to faceoff with the No. 1 team in the FCS against the rush in the Red Flash. Last week against Lehigh, Saint Francis only gave up 11 yards on the ground, and the Mountain Hawks didn’t get a first down from rushing throughout the contest.
“It’s very important because the run game will help the pass game, which eventually will help us basically win the game,” Vanhorse said on running the ball. “We pride ourselves on running the ball, so we have to come on and beat them in the face.”
On the defense, Holloway and his teammates will look to continue their strong start to the season against the Mountaineers. JMU excelled at limiting West Virginia’s backs during Saturday’s game.
Through four quarters, WVU only earned two first downs off the rush and 34 yards off 24 attempts. The defensive line helped JMU become the third-best defense against the run in the FCS after one week of play. JMU faces an offense that only put up 68 yards on the ground last week, so it’s likely the Dukes will put up similar numbers like they did last week.
“If you want to make a team one dimensional and make them basically play how you want them to play, [then] you got to make them one dimension,” Holloway said. “You stop the run, you know they have to pass, so it’s an easier game for the defense.”
Like last season, JMU enters its first home game of the season 0-1. When the Dukes practiced Tuesday, Holloway and Vanhorse both saw the desire among their teammates to get the first win of the season.
“You could just tell that everybody’s hungry for that first,” Holloway said. “You can’t think about it too much, can’t dwell on the past, so you just got to come on and prepare like you do any other week.”
4. Editor’s input: Home crowd will help in search for first victory
There’s no reason to worry about the Dukes after a loss to an FBS program. Ever since Saturday, many members of JMU Nation have taken to Twitter to highlight that the last time the Dukes lost to an FBS team under a new head coach, the program went on to win a national title only a few months later.
While it’s way too early to plan a trip to Frisco, Texas, this team has the skill set to rebound and claim its first win of the young season this weekend.
The Dukes return home to play in Bridgeforth Stadium in front of a crowd of the JMU faithful. Even though there was a section at Milan Puskar Stadium wearing purple last Saturday, the Dukes will play in a stadium that’ll be nearly filled to its entirety with JMU fans this weekend.
The home-field environment won’t be the deciding factor in which team walks out of the stadium victorious, but it will provide an extra edge to a team that’s already hungry for its first win. As eager as the Dukes are to win, they’re just as excited to play in Harrisonburg.
“It’s a lovely environment,” Holloway said. “Knowing even when we come back home, like this is such a great atmosphere out here, so when we come and play, this is a different atmosphere — it’s just great.”
JMU’s first home game of the season should prove to be one of celebration. The Dukes will walk off the field with their first win of the season against Saint Francis. JMU wins 57-7.
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.