JMU football (7-1, 4-0 CAA) returns home to Bridgeforth Stadium for its homecoming Saturday. The Dukes have already spoiled two other CAA teams’ homecoming games and look to come out on top of their own when Towson (4-3, 1-2 CAA) makes the trip from outside Baltimore to Harrisonburg.
1. Back on track: preview of Towson
Selected in the preseason to finish second in the CAA behind JMU, the Tigers haven’t strung together the season many would’ve expected up to this point. With a dominant start, Towson opened its season on a four-game win streak that saw the Tigers climb as high as No. 5 in the FCS.
Then came a three-game losing streak, sending the Tigers down the national rankings to No. 18.
Towson bounced back from a 31-28 home loss to unranked Albany in commanding fashion Saturday. With a six touchdown and 203-yard performance from redshirt senior quarterback Tom Flacco, the Tigers claimed their first win since Sept. 21, beating Bucknell 56-7.
“I think every win is one you need,” Towson head coach Rob Ambrose said on the CAA Football Media Teleconference on Monday. “We definitely needed that. It’s been a while … I think [the players] shook off all the distractions [and] really got back to the heart and soul of football and the way we played it early in the season.”
The Tigers’ trip south to the Shenandoah Valley will mark the first time Towson has played at JMU since Oct. 11, 2014. In recent meetings, the Dukes have had control of the series, topping Towson by a combined score of 151-54 in the teams’ last three meetings, dating back to the 2014 contest.
Last season was the first time since 2015 that the Tigers and Dukes met in CAA play, and while Towson fell 38-17, there were signs of growth in a program that had struggled for two years prior. With Flacco last year, Towson’s offense showed poise and ability with 372 passing yards and two touchdowns. The biggest downfall for Towson last season against the Dukes was its inability to get its run game going and find a way to limit JMU’s rush attack.
This season, Towson sits in the middle of the CAA in rush defense. The Tigers allow an average of 157.6 yards rushing per game, including 11 total rushing touchdowns. Much like all of the CAA teams JMU has faced, Towson will be tasked with trying to limit a loaded backfield, which at one point featured three primary back but has recently added freshman Latrele Palmer to the mix.
“Let’s be honest; [JMU is] incredibly talented,” Ambrose said. “They’re deep. Who lists four tailbacks — who does that? But they do. They run the ball extremely well, they throw the ball with incredible dynamic ability and defensively, they’re a bunch of studs; that’s all there is to it. There’s guys on that defense that are going to play in the NFL, and there’s a reason that they’re No. 2 team in the country.”
2. Coach’s corner: Attack early and get to the quarterback
Since JMU’s Week 1 loss to West Virginia, the Dukes have been rolling. They’ve outscored opponents 323-135 through eight games and currently boast a seven-game win streak, remaining the only team in the CAA still unbeaten in conference play.
This weekend, though, the Dukes will face one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and an offense that puts up an average of 33.9 points per game.
The biggest task early for the Dukes will be getting Flacco under control. When given the opportunity, Flacco can hurt teams with his feet and arm — evident in Towson’s win last week, where he threw for six touchdowns. Cignetti cites that teams have been able to get pressure on Flacco already this year, with him taking around 2.5 sacks a game. The JMU defensive line, with stars like redshirt senior Ron’Dell Carter and senior John Daka, has the potential to get to Flacco.
“We want to put pressure on him in the game and tackle,” head coach Curt Cignetti said. “[We need to] make sure our eye discipline is really good. Your eye discipline’s gotta be really good … trying to tackle a guy like that — don’t go for the pump fake and things like that.”
The JMU secondary will also have to try and limit redshirt senior wide receiver Shane Leatherbury. The Salisbury, Maryland, native is coming off a five-touchdown performance against Bucknell and currently has 495 yards on the season and eight scores.
For the JMU offense, the unit will be going up against a defense that’s often overlooked because of the star power on offense. Cignetti, however, has a past with the Tigers and knows what their defense can bring. The coach leading the Dukes onto the field Saturday, while in his first year with the program, has played Towson both years he was at Elon.
“They’ve been a four-down team in the past, and now, they’re playing a little bit more odd front,” Cignetti said on the teleconference. “Bryce Carter creates a lot of havoc, and their linebackers are good, so they give you a different look … They try to keep you off balance, and they’re very aggressive.”
3. Player’s perspective: Prepare to contribute
In Saturday’s game against William & Mary, senior tight end Dylan Stapleton put together a career day. The Indiana, Pennsylvania, native recorded four catches for 54 yards en route to the Dukes’ commanding 38-10 victory over the Tribe. Stapleton’s stats have been steadily improving in his second year with the program, already surpassing last season’s totals.
Stapleton’s ability to contribute, whether it’s a critical block or on the stat sheet, highlights the strength and depth the JMU offense boasts. Through the opening portion of the schedule, JMU established itself as a strong threat on the ground, with multiple backs seeing significant playing time. Heading into the remaining portion of conference play, Stapleton believes the Dukes will only benefit from having a strong rushing attack.
“Teams are gonna watch our film [and] maybe say this is a run-first team,” Stapleton said. “They’re going to be surprised when we have weapons on the outside … [We can] spread the ball out to a lot of different receivers whenever.”
The Tigers’ defense is in the middle of the CAA in terms of stopping the rush and limiting the passing game. With so much focus put on the JMU running backs each week, it’s likely the Dukes will get opportunities to bring out the long ball. In order to implement that, however, JMU needs to establish the run game fast and early Saturday.
“If we establish a run game, we can definitely take our shots downfield,” Stapleton said. “If we can open up the run [in] the first quarter or two, then you’re going to see our offense just open it up in the second half and take control of the game.”
Meanwhile, the defense is preparing to face one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the FCS in Flacco. Coming off a season that saw the redshirt senior record 3,251 passing yards and 742 rushing yards for an average of 332.8 yards per game, Flacco was selected as the CAA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year and has lived up to that title early on in the 2019 season.
When the Dukes met the Tigers last season in Towson, Maryland, JMU had never been pitted against Flacco. He was in his first season with the program after transferring in from Rutgers, and the Dukes’ only input on him was what they’d seen on film. This weekend, though, JMU has gametime experience against Flacco — something redshirt junior safety D’Angelo Amos said he believes will be helpful.
It’s not just last year’s experience against Flacco that Amos said he thinks will help the defense. Each day at practice, the Dukes are tasked with facing and controlling dynamic quarterbacks. Players like redshirt senior Ben DiNucci and redshirt junior Cole Johnson bring different skills to practice each day. Amos said both are athletic and provide traits similar to Flacco.
“To go against him and see, alright, he really can move, he really can escape; [it’s good],” Amos said. “He’s a lot like Bryan Schor and Ben [DiNucci], so to go against that for years on end and then actually go against him last year is very big, and we know what we’re getting into.”
A key aspect of Flacco’s game JMU will need to contain is his ability to extend plays even when under pressure from opponents’ defensive lines. The Voorhees, New Jersey, native has shown during his two years at Towson that he’s a threat rushing and throwing.
Already this season, Flacco sits second in the CAA for total offense and has contributed 1,639 yards in the air and 300 rushing. With the offense running through Flacco, JMU’s needs to be prepared for the attack, both up front and in the secondary. The Dukes’ secondary has hit rough patches throughout the start of the season, but each time it seems like a team will reach the end zone, the unit locks down.
“The culture we build in the weight room and with [Brian Phillips and] just a mentality that the past guys built into us before they left is just, we don’t, we don’t break,” Amos said. “We may bend … but you never break. When we get down in the red zone, we don’t allow touchdowns — that’s not what we do.”
The defense’s ability to keep Flacco and the Towson offense out of the red zone will be key in Saturday’s matchup. Towson currently has 23 touchdowns in 32 red zone appearances, and the Dukes look to limit that Saturday.
4. Editor’s input: Don’t fall for the record
Towson’s 4-3 record can be deceiving. Only one loss away from sitting at .500 on the season, it may seem that the Tigers have struggled through the opening portion of the season, but it’s the opposite.
Towson’s three losses come at the hands of FBS power Florida as well as conference foes Villanova and Albany, which have exceeded preseason expectations. Behind Flacco and a dynamic offense, the Tigers are in a prime position to have a strong finish in CAA play.
While Towson should prove to be a challenge for the Dukes on their homecoming, JMU should be just fine. The Dukes have faced challenges through eight weeks of play, and while this will be another one, they’ve proven to be successful in the face of adversity. JMU will come out on top, 41-27.
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.