JMU football returns home this Saturday for its third CAA matchup of the season. The Dukes are slated to meet Villanova, who currently occupies the top spot in the conference for Family Weekend.
1. Unbeaten: Preview of Villanova
There aren’t many times a team goes toe-to-toe with JMU at Bridgeforth Stadium. The Wildcats are one of the five remaining undefeated teams in the FCS with a record of 6-0 (3-0 CAA). Although JMU is unbeaten against FCS opponents, the Wildcats are building momentum after being picked to finish No. 9 in the CAA Football Preseason Poll.
Villanova averages 39.5 points per game, good for second in the CAA behind JMU (41.2). The Wildcats are in the top three in rushing offense, scoring defense, rushing defense, total offense, total defense, defensive pass efficiency and both red zone offense and defense.
Junior running back Justin Covington leads the conference with 121.2 rushing yards per game, but his status for Saturday’s contest is uncertain after he sustained an injury Saturday. Junior linebacker Forrest Rhyne boasts 8.2 tackles per game. VU has the weapons, but head coach Mark Ferrante knows the Dukes will compete with the Wildcats.
“When you can have the passing game and the balance they’ve been able to have … it’s going to open up the run game,” Ferrante said. “If teams are loading up the box, they can run some plays and play-action and Ben [DiNucci] can get the ball to the various wide receivers and tight ends they have.”
Ferrante praised JMU’s loaded run game, which has three running backs averaging more than 53 yards per game. Because of the speed and versatility the wide receivers bring, defenses are forced to spread out and cover the field. That leaves the Dukes free to use its backs in the trenches, a tactic Cignetti has built his offense around.
Saturday’s bout will feature a battle between two of the CAA’s top field generals. Redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci is No. 1 in the conference in pass efficiency at 175, but he’ll have the task of out-dueling Villanova junior quarterback Daniel Smith. Smith, who hails from Leesburg, Virginia, averages 204.7 passing yards per game — just 9.3 fewer than DiNucci.
While Ferrante noted DiNucci’s playmaking ability, he’s confident in his quarterback’s ability to keep things under control. Handling adversity has been a key factor in Villanova’s undefeated campaign, and entering a tough environment like Harrisonburg will require Smith to keep his poise.
“Dan does a really good job of managing the game,” Ferrante said. “He makes great pre- and post-snap decisions, does a good job reading the defense and — for the most part — taking what is there … Dan’s been a really good addition to the program.”
The Wildcats still pose a threat, even if Covington is unavailable for the game. Five receivers average more than 20 yards per game, and on the defensive side, they have two defensive backs with two or more interceptions. No matter the challenges Ferrante’s team will face, it’ll find it difficult to properly prepare for a capable JMU team.
2. Coach’s corner: Finally home
Besides a Week 1 clash with West Virginia, the Dukes have steamrolled through their schedule. In weeks two through five, JMU won by an average of 27.75 points. It also hadn’t given up a touchdown in the first half until Week 4 versus Chattanooga. Then, Stony Brook handed the Dukes their first difficult test since late August.
JMU had many chances to put the game away, but turnovers stalled numerous drives and led to the game going into overtime. Luckily for head coach Curt Cignetti, his squad scored fast and held the Seawolves out of the endzone, earning a 45-38 win. He was quick to say it wasn’t pretty, but the win was earned, and it gave JMU important experience.
Similar to how Villanova must prepare for the adversity Harrisonburg presents, the Dukes will need to make important in-game adjustments so it can spoil the Wildcats’ unbeaten run. Cignetti says it’s important that his players know how to roll with the punches, and a gutsy overtime win over Stony Brook proved how strong the Dukes are.
“I think the good thing coming out of it for us is to have that kind of adversity and win a close game, which has been a little bit of an issue here last season,” Cignetti said. “It will give our guys some added confidence, but we have a lot to clean up for sure.”
Against SBU, the Dukes coughed up the ball five times, three of which happened within the SBU 25-yard line, were recovered by Stony Brook and resulted in a Seawolves touchdown. A 21-point swing pushed JMU to the limit but also highlighted concerns of ball security — an issue that’s appeared since the start of the season.
However, despite the problems the Dukes have overcome, they’ve claimed victories on the road for the past three weeks. They haven’t played on Zane Showker field since Sept. 14 against Morgan State. Now in the beginning stages of conference play, having a home-field advantage is crucial to the season’s longevity. Cignetti felt his team grew fatigued after a long three-game road trip, but that made him even more impressed with the way the Dukes handled a daunting Stony Brook crowd.
JMU has won 24 of its last 25 home contests, with the last loss coming to a Cignetti-led Elon in 2018. The Dukes haven’t lost to Villanova at Bridgeforth since 2009 and have won by more than three touchdowns in the last two meetings. For an eager team that’s excited to play in front of its home fans, the momentum can be swayed at any moment, placing added importance to a fast start to the game.
“Our guys, I think, are going to be really excited to get back home,” Cignetti said. “It’s been a long three weeks. I was concerned that the team was a little tired last week; it was extremely hot here for practice, and we played two games in the heat … Coming back home this week is really going to help us.”
After traveling over 1,000 miles in less than a month, a veteran-laden Dukes team may relish in the opportunity to extend its win streak to six games. As the No. 2 team in the nation, a win over fifth-ranked Villanova is a resume booster come 2019 FCS Playoffs selection time. However, Cignetti and his team focus on one game at a time. This week, it’s all about the Wildcats.
3. Player’s perspective: Play your game
Against Stony Brook, JMU fumbled the ball five times, losing three of them. Tuesday at practice, the Dukes were doing ball security drills.
“I think that’s a major point of emphasis,” DiNucci said. “The ball is the game — that’s basically what it comes down to. Protect the ball on offense, and try to take it on defense.”
Even with five fumbles and an interception, JMU’s offense did what it needed to in order to leave Stony Brook after a shootout 45-38 victory. DiNucci helped lead the offense to another successful day both on the ground and through the air, finishing with 547 total yards of offense. For the second week in a row, the Dukes posted over 300 yards on the ground, but they face another tough task in Villanova this weekend.
The Wildcats have only surrendered 538 rushing yards this season for an average of three yards per carry and 89.7 per game. Meanwhile, the Dukes currently boast a CAA-leading 268.2 yards per game on the ground. While the Villanova run defense may put a limit on JMU’s offensive threat, JMU’s answer could come through the air.
Villanova has struggled this season defending the pass. The Wildcats currently sit at the bottom of the CAA standings, allowing 1,616 yards this season for 269.3 per game while also giving up an average of 6.2 yards per completion. For the Dukes, DiNucci leads the CAA in pass efficiency, completing 72.4% of his passes for 1,284 yards, eight touchdowns and only two interceptions.
“Just watching film these past two days, I think we’ll be able to take advantage of their secondary and some things that they do,” DiNucci said. “We’ve got some speedy receivers, some guys who can go up and make plays … We’ll be able to, kind of, attack some different things that they do, so bottom line is, just do what we do.”
The game ahead won’t be easy for JMU. It’s a top-5 matchup between two CAA powerhouses. The Dukes and the Wildcats both have a perfect conference record on the line this weekend and have already been tested in CAA play.
With six teams in the CAA currently ranked inside the top-25 in the nations, none of these schools have an easy schedule ahead — this weekend included. The teams will be battle-tested by the time playoffs come, but to the players, that’s a benefit.
“It’ll definitely ready us for the playoffs,” junior defensive lineman Mike Greene said. “Having to play a lot of good competition every single week will make us better as a team.”
4. Editors’ input: Different game than last year
This game is a tough one to predict. On the one hand, it’s easy to say JMU will take this one. The Dukes are 5-1, riding a five-game win streak, and are perfect at home this season. But Villanova is just different this year. This won’t be the 37-0 victory JMU saw over the Wildcats last season — it’ll be closer, and it’ll be fun.
This season, JMU has kept its eyes on the game ahead, never straying to future opponents. That mindset will be what helps the Dukes this weekend — that and the sold-out Bridgeforth crowd.
The game should be interesting with an extra edge to it with the CAA implications. Both of these teams have the potential to make a run during the playoffs, and either one could claim the CAA title. But, with a home crowd behind them and a win streak on the line, the Dukes will be just fine against Villanova. JMU wins 24-14.
Contact Catie Harper and Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.