Home sweet home — for this week, at least.
JMU football makes its return to Bridgeforth Stadium to host No. 11 Villanova in the third CAA matchup of the season and the first home game since the 55-7 win over Maine on Sept. 11. The 4-0 Dukes are seeing an increase in matchup intensity, going from No. 25 New Hampshire to the Wildcats on Saturday. National ranking aside, JMU head coach Curt Cignetti is well aware of what this game means for JMU:
“This is definitely our toughest challenge to date, no question in my mind," Cignetti said.
From the office: what Cignetti is saying
Out of 21 points scored by UNH in Week Five, 14 were taken by the defense. The defensive explosion led to JMU trailing 21-17 heading into the fourth quarter — the first time the Dukes have been behind all season. Having to make a comeback, redshirt senior quarterback Cole Johnson found redshirt junior wide receiver Kris Thronton for the game-winning touchdown, and redshirt junior linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Doresy sealed the win with an interception with 1:45 left in the game.
While the high-pressure situation wasn’t part of the game plan for the Dukes, Cignetti said, he felt that overcoming the adversity was good for the team — citing a similar situation with the 2020 FCS Semifinals game against Sam Houston.
“It was probably a good thing for us to be in that situation,” Cignetti said. “It’s a lot of adversity coming from that game … and it was good for us to happen away.”
Now with Villanova on the head coach’s mind, Cignetti said the Wildcats use a creative offensive structure — presenting a new challenge for JMU defensive coach Corey Hetherman. Cignetti often referenced plays from the last time Villanova made the trip to Harrisonburg in 2019.
“I was really impressed with what they were doing, and they blitzed us a lot in that game,” Cigentti said. “It was a crazy back-and-forth game, and I thought that was a big day for our team then.”
The Wildcats are aggressive both offensively and defensively, only allowing 42 yards per game. Cignetti predicts that it’ll be a physical game, making the emphasis on minimizing turnovers stronger than before.
“We missed a lot of tackles, particularly toward the end of the game,” Cignetti said. “At times, our coverage was good on Saturday, but we have to control the turnovers against this team.”
On the field: how the players are feeling
The Dukes said they know the mistakes they made and realize what they need to do to fix them. JMU continually emphasizes the importance of leaving the past behind and focusing on the next game. Redshirt sophomore running back Latrele Palmer echoed the sentiment, saying JMU needs to “protect the football because [the Dukes] didn’t do that very well.”
Palmer had his first career carries and touchdown against Villanova in 2019 as a true freshman. The running back forced the final blow against the Wildcats, coming in to fill gaps in the run core. Now as a leading member of JMU, Palmer said he looks back on the first game with joy and wants to continue the success this weekend.
“[Cignetti] told me, 'You better be ready when your name’s called,’” Palmer said. “I realized that I’m 18, and I can ball with the big boys. So, it’s definitely a confidence booster.”
For the defense, the key element of Saturday’s game is making smart decisions — both on and off the field. The Dukes are in their most difficult stretch of the season, and they said they know the importance of staying healthy. The Wildcats are coming off a bye week and a loss — JMU isn’t. Redshirt senior defensive end Bryce Carter said the importance of staying consistent in these difficult stretches goes back to practice and staying rested, even if it’s still game week.
“There’s an importance in recovery that I make sure to do,” Carter said. “As long as we do that, we should be in good shape.”
On the field, reading formations and making every assignment is the task at hand for the defense. While Carter and the defense say they trust Hetherman and each other to make the most out of their preparations, the most important part is to translate it on the field.
“[Villanova graduate quarterback Daniel Smith] does a good job of extending plays and looking all over the field,” Carter said. “We just have to do a good job of communicating so we’re all on the same page and keep him contained on the field.”
The commonality between both offense and defense? Keep the confidence up high.
The second half against UNH wasn’t what JMU had in store, but the Dukes said they know they need to use the adversity to their advantage. There was a feeling of humbleness in the postgame conference, but instead of nerves, JMU looks to convert the humbleness into confidence.
“They have a very good defense, just like we faced a really good defense last week as well,” Palmer said. “It should be a good game.”
Yet, what both Carter and Palmer said they’re looking forward to the most is seeing their families in the stands Saturday. With the sold-out game on Family Weekend, Palmer is looking forward to his family being a part of the 25,000 fans packed into Bridgeforth at 2 p.m.
“I’m having a bunch of family members in the stands, and I’m excited for that,” Palmer said. “Our fans are the best fans in the FCS so it’s going to be a loud and physical game.”
Contact Madison Hricik at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.