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JMU football completed the first leg of its three-game road trip with a convincing 37-14 win over Chattanooga, but the Dukes were put to the test for a brief period in the first half before dominating the final two quarters. Head coach Curt Cignetti spoke to fans and media at O’Neill’s Grill following his team’s third win of the season and ahead of his return to Elon.

No. 1: Offense coming together as each week passes

Cignetti will be the first person to point out what JMU’s offense needs to work on but still maintains praise on how the offense is improving each game. One aspect that has seen an increase each week is the passing game. 

Redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci threw for 156 yards, no touchdowns and an interception against West Virginia but has followed that performance with 725 passing yards — with each outing being larger than the previous — and seven touchdowns in three games. The former Pittsburgh Panther wanted to work on consistency over the offseason, and through four weeks of play, DiNucci’s efficiency has helped the offense thrive. However, with CAA play getting ready to begin for the Dukes, he’ll face more high-pressure situations that’ll test the offense. 

The staple of the Dukes’ offense has been its potent running attack. With four running backs that Cignetti has used — varying in roles depending on the situation — it draws any team’s defense’s attention, placing more importance on the air attack. With DiNucci’s improvement and redshirt senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton having returned to the fray, JMU will have the luxury of keeping its opponents on their toes. 

“The pass game has been very efficient. It’s keeping us on the field on third down,” Cignetti said. “We were very good on third down [against Chattanooga], 8-of-13, which gives us more run opportunities. The better you run the ball, it opens up the down-the-field shots, one-on-one coverage. Now, you just gotta win those matchups and deliver the ball.”

Winning the one-on-one matchups will be critical to CAA success. In the first half, JMU dropped multiple catches, which stifled drives and prevented the Dukes from continuing their momentum. 

Stapleton’s return allows DiNucci one more aerial weapon, but his brother and senior tight end Dylan Stapleton has caught the attention of Cignetti and his teammates. The 6-foot-5-inch player from Indiana, Pennsylvania, can provide good blocking or make key catches. Against Chattanooga, Stapleton hauled in three catches for 36 yards, which was the third highest mark for the Dukes. 

“[Dylan Stapleton is] one of our most consistent players and does a really good job in the run game,” Cignetti said. “Has good hands, can run. We’ve been able to utilize him on some play action pass type things, out of pocket stuff. Most of his catches go for pretty good chunks, and [I’d] really would like to find more ways to get him the ball.”

Against CAA opponents, the necessity for a multi-dimensional offense increases. In order to reclaim the conference title, DiNucci and Co. need to continue their development and take one game at a time and not look ahead. 

No. 2: Davis Cheek, Elon’s defense will make game management difficult

At 2-2 in 2019, No. 24 Elon is the toughest FCS opponent JMU will face so far. After losing to North Carolina A&T 24-21 to begin the season, the Phoenix rattled off wins over The Citadel — who later took down ACC member Georgia Tech — and Richmond, moving them to 2-1. Then, Wake Forest handed Elon a 49-7 stomping, putting head coach Tony Trisciani’s men back at .500. 

The most impressive statistic Elon boasts is its red-zone efficiency. In 10 trips to the redzone, the Phoenix have scored nine touchdowns. Junior quarterback Davis Cheek has a 58.16% completion percentage and eight touchdowns total, but only averages 184 passing yards per game, putting him at No. 7 in the CAA. 

“Davis Cheek is an excellent quarterback. I’ve said a lot of times that he’s wired to play quarterback,” Cignetti said. “He makes great decisions, he gets the ball out of his hand quickly, he’s very well-coached, he’s very accurate, poised, competitive. He’ll get them out of bad plays.”

Junior wide receiver Kortez Weeks, sophomore wide receiver Avery Jones and senior tight end Matt Foster average at least 33 receiving yards per game. Cheek’s chemistry with his receivers is something Cignetti points out as a threat for a JMU secondary that’s been susceptible to giving up big plays. 

The Phoenix’s 3-3-5 defense presents a difficult week of preparation for opposing coaching staffs, but JMU’s run attack is an easy counter to a team that gives up nearly 150 yards on the ground per game. 

“Their front is really good. [Senior defensive end] Marcus Willoughby is a really good player,” Cignetti said. “They have multiplicity in their scheme. They’ve been in that scheme for three years, the people running the defense have been in that scheme for a long time. They blitz a lot, they move the line a lot. They can create a lot of problems for you.”

Willoughby has been involved in 26 tackles this season and is tied for second on the team. Senior defensive back Daniel Reid-Bennett has 20 solo tackles and two interceptions — both of which are team-highs. 

No. 3: Business trip for Cignetti

The storylines surrounding JMU vs. Elon are no secret. Cignetti is returning for the first time since departing for Harrisonburg, and the Dukes want revenge for last year’s 27-24 loss to the Phoenix. While Cignetti knows what’s at stake ahead of Saturday’s showdown, last year’s game holds no weight for him. 

“That’s in the past, that’s not really my focus,” Cignetti said. “My focus is on this game coming up Saturday. This is a new team, it’s a new brand. We do things differently. The next opponent happens to be Elon.”

Similar to how he reacted to being at West Virginia for the first time in many years, Cignetti doesn’t see his return to Elon as a major headline. He says football is about the players, not the coaches. 

“I’ve got a job to do this week and on Saturday, and that’s how I’m approaching it,” Cignetti said. 

Rhodes Stadium will provide an intense atmosphere, but history is on the Dukes’ side. JMU has never lost at Elon, with the last competition being in 2017, which ended with a 31-3 scoreline that claimed the Dukes’ second consecutive CAA title.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about us,” Cignetti said. “That’s what we control, and every week, the opponent’s faceless … What’s going to make you successful in a football game never changes. Our guys are going to be really excited for the conference opener, I know that.”

Contact Noah Ziegler at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

There comes a time where an athlete realizes their true potential. When I realized that I was never going to make a living on the court, I figured I’d make it on the sidelines. I hope to be able to attend and cover the World Cup and NCAA tournament.