JMU football has seen its fair share of tough opponents on its road to an 8-1 (5-0 CAA) overall record in 2019.
There was the Oct. 5 matchup against Stony Brook that required an overtime period for the Dukes to claim the win and the top-5 contest a week later when Villanova came to Harrisonburg.
The Dukes have been pushed throughout the season. They’ve had their backs right up against their own endzone. But each time, JMU finds a way out.
“We're just making sure that we understand that they're going to have big plays — we're also gonna have big plays as well,” senior safety Adam Smith said. “When they have the big play, [head coach Curt] Cignetti talks about keeping your composure and moving on to the next play.”
That mantra was on full display two weeks ago when the Dukes faced Towson for their homecoming game. Led by redshirt senior quarterback Tom Flacco, the Tigers drove down the field with one of the top defenses in the FCS struggling to get them off the field.
As Towson neared the red zone for the first time in the contest, it was Smith that got the Dukes off the field, recording his fourth interception of the season — a team-high.
“We have a ‘bend, don't break’ mentality,” redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson said. “They're going to make plays, but to be able to hold them to three or get a turnover plays a big, big role. And three is better than seven, the way we preach it."
The Dukes’ “bend, don’t break” mantra starts well before the team steps onto the turf. It forms in the locker room among the players or as they sit in meeting rooms while reviewing tape, and it extends onto the turf each week.
Even when it seems like an opposing offense is about to crack the JMU defense, the Dukes completely lock down and keep teams out of their end zone. In nine weeks of action, the JMU defense has allowed 22 red zone attempts — tied for fifth-best in the FCS — and are only forfeiting an average of 16.10 points a game — the fifth-fewest by any team in the nation.
Since Cignetti’s arrival in Harrisonburg almost a year ago, he’s made a few ideals clear — his team is going to lead the CAA in rushing, and the men he coaches need to "play every down like it’s nothing-nothing." Through the bye week, the argument can easily be made that the team has played just like that.
“Just knowing that if you look too far ahead, then you're not focused on the game that's coming up,” redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway said. “If we're worried about the playoffs right now, we're not necessarily all the way focused on New Hampshire … If we don't handle New Hampshire, then we don't need to worry about the playoffs.”
While the JMU offense isn’t tasked with limiting an opponent’s scoring chances, the Dukes have seen growth on the offensive side of the ball through the opening portion of the season. In all but one conference matchup this year, JMU has found itself trailing at some point in the game.
During its game on Oct. 12, JMU was trailing then-No. 5 Villanova heading into the fourth quarter. It was the latest into the game the Dukes had trailed since their Week 1 meeting with West Virginia, and the offense hadn’t found a way to separate itself from the Wildcats through the opening three quarters.
“I definitely think that we can create our own momentum,” junior running back Percy Agyei-Obese said. “Everyone backs each other up, and when it's time to go, everyone's focused and we trust in each other, so that allows us to make plays when it's needed.”
There are three games left until the postseason gets underway, and as JMU fans eagerly await another playoff push, the team will continue on with its ideals. There won’t be any eyes straying to next weekend’s game against Richmond or where the Dukes may rank heading into the postseason.
For now, it’s all about New Hampshire and making sure the team stays focused and continues to live by “bend, don’t break.”
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.