It’s an ending that most throughout the JMU fanbase won’t soon forget, but those in Ogden, Utah, want to erase it from their memory come Saturday.
The first meeting between JMU and Weber State came late in the 2017 season with a trip to the FCS semifinals at stake. As the game neared the end, it seemed the Wildcats would hand the Dukes their first home loss since 2015.
But, JMU pulled through, in part because of then-redshirt freshman kicker Ethan Ratke.
Now, two seasons later, the programs face off once again with bigger goals lingering in the minds of the players and coaching staffs. The winners will pack their bags and make the trip to Frisco, Texas, for the FCS National Championship.
However, much like he has all season, JMU head coach Curt Cignetti continues to stress that this is just another week.
“The national championship is just another game, too,” Cignetti said Monday at the O'Neill's Fan & Press Luncheon. “So, all eyes on Weber.”
JMU’s defense is coming off one of its best games of the season ahead of a tough test in Weber State. In the quarterfinals against Northern Iowa, the Dukes didn’t allow any rushing yards and only 114 yards of total offense. The 0-yard mark was the eighth consecutive game opponents were unable to reach triple digits against JMU on the ground.
Currently, the Dukes boast the top defense in the FCS against the run and the No. 2 defense on third downs. Coming to Harrisonburg is a Weber State team that’s put up nearly 30 points per game — almost double what the Dukes are accustomed to allowing.
“Statistically on defense, [Weber State is] at the top in just about every category,” Cignetti said. “That is without question the strength of their team. Their offense does their part, they're very efficient and their special teams are good.”
One of the biggest points of emphasis for this weekend’s game is time of possession. Up to now, JMU has been dominant getting off the field on defense and giving its offense the chance to produce points.
The Dukes’ offense is on the field nearly 22% more than opponents, accounting for almost 10% more of the game each week. Last week against Northern Iowa, JMU made a statement with its ability to control a matchup. By the conclusion of the contest, the Dukes’ offense was on the field for over 42 minutes, meaning JMU’s offense played more than 70% of the entire game.
However, coming to Harrisonburg is a team that’s seen almost the same success as the Dukes when it comes to controlling the ball. The Wildcats average 32:14 in time of possession, which falls only 43 seconds less than JMU’s average.
“The last two weeks, our time of possession has been 42 minutes plus,” Cignetti said on the weekly teleconference. “You don't see that very often.”
For the JMU offense to once again control the game, it’ll need to keep constant pressure on a strong Weber State defense. The Wildcats enter the game with a well-rounded defensive attack, good enough to limit some of the nation’s top offenses.
Throughout 2019, JMU has been one of the best teams in the country at converting third-down chances — successful almost 56% of the time. However, the Weber State defense is only allowing third-down conversions 32% of the time, which is the 12th best mark in the FCS. The Wildcats are also No. 4 in the country when it comes to forcing turnovers.
“[Ball security is] a big thing with us,” Cignetti said. “Northern Iowa had a very good turnover ratio — these guys have an even better one … We had two turnovers on offense [against Northern Iowa,] and that can't happen this week.”
Behind All-Americans like redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter, senior defensive lineman John Daka, junior offensive lineman Liam Fornadel and redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci, JMU should be able to thrive against the Wildcats. The Dukes have playoff experience on both sides of the ball, with some starters already having played in big games like a national championship.
JMU is one win away from getting back to Frisco after falling short a year ago. It’ll need its stars to step up to push them to the win, which will happen. JMU tops Weber State 27-10.
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.