It’s been two decades since Curt Cignetti walked the streets of Morgantown, West Virginia.
While JMU football fans anticipate the start of the 2019 season, the team’s head coach is preparing to make a trip back to the town and school where he spent most of his childhood and early adult life. WVU is Cignetti’s alma mater and where his father, Frank Cignetti, spent nine years of his coaching career from 1970 to 1979. From the time Cignetti was in third grade to when he walked the stage at his graduation from college, Morgantown was home.
“Honestly, to me, it won’t be any different in terms of how I prepare and how I feel,” Cignetti said. “What will probably be a little different for me is running out there in Morgantown — a place where I grew up.”
Along with Cignetti, the Dukes are eagerly awaiting their first game of the season. For the past month, they’ve been suiting up and facing off with teammates, and with Saturday quickly approaching, the Dukes’ mindset has switched to the task at hand — the Mountaineers.
Redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson is arguably one of the most excited players to get on the field come Saturday. The All-American hasn’t played in a game in almost two years after suffering a season-ending foot injury during last season’s fall camp.
“How excited? I’ll say about a 12,” Robinson said. “Me, personally, [I’m excited] just because I haven’t played, but I know the team is about at a 12. We’ve been working at it since January [through] summer workouts.”
Since ending fall camp early last week, JMU has been preparing for Saturday’s contest for over a week now. The Dukes have begun to look more at West Virginia’s film as the days get closer to kickoff.
Much like in Harrisonburg, there’s a new coaching staff in Morgantown. While there’s limited film showing what this staff has done at WVU — both schools have each other’s spring game tape — JMU has looked at film from Troy University, where WVU head coach Neal Brown previously coached, along with video on Maryland’s special teams, where Tyler Hancock was hired from to be WVU’s senior analyst (special teams).
“We get to finally put into perspective West Virginia,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter said. “We put them into perspective, and now you get to play with them. You get [to] picture everything you’re going to do when the game comes.”
Awaiting the Dukes when they arrive at Milan Puskar Field on Saturday will be a sold-out crowd of 60,000 fans. While many will be donning Mountaineers’ blue and old gold, the stands won’t be lacking purple and gold.
“JMU always travels well, so I know I can’t ... wait for that,” Robinson said. “Not too many people get to grow up and say they played in front of 60,000 people, and Morgantown has always been a fantastic place to play that I’ve heard. I’ve never been there, but it’s just a great opportunity for us as a team and JMU as a university.”
For many athletes on JMU’s roster, their experience playing against an FBS opponent is limited. While some have come to JMU from FBS programs, the overwhelming majority only experience an FBS program once a season.
To keep players calm — whether they’re new to the college football stage or just back for another season — Cignetti has worked to instill a mantra of playing every game and down like the score is tied.
“I think every team in America across the board is going to be excited for the first game,” Cignetti said. “There’s pregame jitters a lot of games — that’s normal … We just want to go out there and do our thing and execute.”
In practice, JMU has tried to simulate games as much as possible to prepare its players for the real deal. There are first team vs. first team and second team vs. second team battles throughout practice, creating a game-like feeling, but to the players, it’s not the same as what they’ll face on a Saturday in the fall.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to have Week 1 jitters just because we have a chance to play in front of 60,000 people,” Robinson said. “Plus, it’s the first game of college football, so I feel like if you aren’t nervous, then something’s wrong with you.”
For now, the Dukes will wait, anxious and ready to get back into a game atmosphere. There are two days left until they take to Mountaineer Field and get another shot at an FBS program, hoping to improve on a 9-4 season last year.
“I can’t imagine what it’ll be like,” Carter said. “But, I can tell you one thing: that [we’re going] to be ready to compete.”
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter at @TheBreezeSports.