The long, tiring and seemingly never-ending road known as the offseason is coming to a close. College football fans witnessed “week zero” on Saturday, but it was only a glimpse of the full football slate. For JMU, only a couple of days separate the Dukes from getting back onto the field and playing football again. Their first test, however, is Big 12 power West Virginia at Milan Puskar Stadium.
- Mountaineer men: Unusual season starts with a test
Like JMU, West Virginia underwent a coaching transition in the offseason. Former head coach Dana Holgorsen resigned and accepted the same job at Houston, which led to the Mountaineers’ hiring of former Troy head coach, Neal Brown.
Brown brings a new philosophy at a needed time. Quarterback Will Grier is now in the NFL, and numerous players followed suit or left WVU. During his time at Troy, Brown established himself as one of the best up-and-coming coaches because of his offensive scheme.
One can expect Brown to utilize the air raid offense, but a flourishing offensive line will allow him to run the ball and open up the field. Redshirt junior quarterback Austin Kendall, a transfer from Oklahoma, got the nod for QB1 heading into week one. In two seasons of play, Kendall appeared in six games, passing for 265 yards and three touchdowns total. He hasn’t been able to prove himself as the main man at the college level, but his first test as the starter is a perennial FCS power.
What could play as a key factor in Saturday’s game is JMU’s player experience vs. West Virginia’s inexperience. The Dukes return 19 of 22 starters from 2018, and redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson is making his return to the gridiron.
“Probably [have] as much experience as any team I’ve lined up and played against as an assistant or head coach,” Brown said. “I like [redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci] on film, he doesn’t get rattled.”
Brown watched every Elon game for offense and defense, looked at Maine’s tape from last season, on top of scouting JMU’s players. The Dukes’ defense will cause issues for a young team as redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter, redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway and senior linebacker Landan Word all bring big-game experience. If the Mountaineers’ offensive line cracks, Kendall could be forced to use his mobility to extend plays — which isn’t his strong suit.
2. Coach’s corner: Special teams to play a critical role in Cignetti’s homecoming
One of JMU’s best features is its special teams prowess. Junior punter Harry O’Kelly provides a dynamic that gives Cignetti the ability to cause trickery. Redshirt junior kicker Ethan Ratke established himself as a reliable kicker, meaning the offense has breathing room if it fails to convert scoring opportunities.
Brown, however, brings an impressive special teams background that Cignetti has put a lot of focus on in practice. In his final season at Troy, the Trojans boasted a 75.6 special teams efficiency — the highest in the country.
If JMU can prevent the mistakes on special teams that give WVU easy scoring chances, the Dukes put themselves in a position to win. For the No. 2 team in FCS, it’ll be tested in all aspects, down to the little things that could separate the two.
As JMU takes the field in Morgantown, West Virginia, Cignetti won’t feel an unfamiliar atmosphere. His father, Frank Cignetti Sr., was the head coach at West Virginia from 1976 to 1979.
“When I was announced as the head coach and looked at the schedule and saw the opener, that definitely kind of caught my eye,” Cignetti said. “I haven’t been back in a long time. I think the last time was '99 when I was at the University of Pittsburgh with Walt Harris. So, obviously, have a lot of great memories.”
3. Players’ perspective: Eager to play a different team
Since December, the only team JMU has played against is itself. Come Saturday, they’ll change their target to the blue and gold of West Virginia.
“It’s really exciting,” junior offensive lineman Liam Fornadel said. “It’s exciting to hit somebody else and to hit a different color jersey.”
JMU’s players are eager to get back and remind fans why the Dukes are a national championship favorite. There’s no better opportunity than playing against a nationally known program like West Virginia.
Cignetti and Fornadel have both noted the Mountaineers’ peculiar defense. They sometimes run a four-down defense, but also throw in a three-down front. While this could cause fits for any offensive line, the Dukes roll out an experienced offensive front. Each position — guard, center and tackle — has a junior or older starting.
“We’re just trying to figure out the defense they’re trying to run,” Fornadel said. “The certain stunts, blitzes and everything they’re trying to do.”
No game will be perfect for an offensive line. Sacks, false starts and holding penalties will happen no matter how much a team prepares itself. If the seasoned front five of JMU can minimize mental mistakes, it’ll have no issue handling an FBS defensive line.
4. Editor’s input: JMU’s experience will bring them to victory
The Dukes are led by players who have played in big atmospheres before. From his time at Pittsburgh, DiNucci isn’t unfamiliar with a rowdy fanbase. Redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk, who transferred from Penn State, has years of experience playing in the Big Ten, which includes Ohio Stadium and Michigan Stadium — both of which surpass 100,000 seats.
West Virginia’s inexperience will be made up by Brown’s high football IQ and Milan Puskar’s home-field advantage. JMU will be ready for the loud Mountaineer faithful, but a sold-out crowd can alter momentum at any moment.
“Come Saturday and we walk in that stadium, it really doesn't matter what stadium you walk into,” Cignetti said. “You've got a job to do, and the field size doesn't change, so it's all business.”
In a battle between new coaches that will test how far they’ve come with their respective transitions, this game provides an unfamiliar feeling for Dukes fans. There’s no tape of Cignetti at JMU, as is with Brown at WVU. It’s what makes this one of the most intriguing FCS vs. FBS matchups.
It’s going to be a close contest that could come down to who has the ball last. The Dukes’ defense will cause fits for Kendall and the rest of the West Virginia offense, and DiNucci will be the catalyst of a flowing offense. JMU will return to Harrisonburg as winners, taking down the Mountaineers, 31-28.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.