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Following another successful weekend for JMU football, head coach Curt Cignetti discussed at his weekly O’Neill’s Fan and Press Luncheon what he liked from his team’s 63-12 trouncing of Morgan State. JMU men’s soccer head coach Paul Zazenski also spoke ahead of the Dukes’ matchup against No. 1 Wake Forest.

No. 1: Cignetti, happy with results, but still wants improvement

No coach will be upset after winning two consecutive games, but Cignetti’s mentality of moving on to the next game prevents him from basking in a victory for too long. Instead, he quickly shifts to his next opponent. This week, his focus is on the Chattanooga Mocs. 

The Mocs began the 2019 season with a 24-10 win over Eastern Illinois but have since lost two straight games: 41-20 to No. 10 Jacksonville State and 45-0 at the hands of Tennessee. While Chattanooga has given up an average of 32 points per game this season, its defense comes with experience.

Chattanooga defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward spent time at numerous high-profile schools. After stops at Alabama and Virginia Tech, he jumped to the NFL and was the defensive backs coach for the Oakland Raiders. He returned to the college level after taking the same job at Arkansas but after one year was named the defensive coordinator at South Carolina under Steve Spurrier. 

“They’ve got a good defense,” Cignetti said. “They’re very multiple, every game there’s things consistently, but then they’ll have some new things … Their guys are always in the right place, they’re very disciplined and they play really hard.”

In 2019, the Mocs allow 249.7 passing yards per game. JMU redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci hasn’t met that mark this season, but with the return of redshirt senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton, the Pittsburgh-transfer will have new opportunities to make plays through the air. 

Ever since naming DiNucci the team’s starting quarterback, Cignetti has established that he has full confidence in him. Following Week 1’s loss to West Virginia, DiNucci drew criticism for his turnover late in the contest. Since then, however, he hasn’t turned the ball over, and he’s thrown for 461 yards and six touchdowns in two games, while also seeing an increase in passing attempts. 

“[DiNucci] has had two good games in a row, but there’s still room for improvement,” Cignetti said. “Ball security can still improve, but he’s doing a good job of getting the ball from point A to point B. He’s making plays with his legs, too. There’s still a couple plays that he’d like to have back, and no matter how well you play, perfection as a concept is almost impossible to attain.”

Cignetti says, against Morgan State, the Dukes threw the ball more than they usually would. He thinks that it’s something they need to do more of in the future, as it’d help spread the field and give his running backs a chance to capitalize off a spread-out defense. 

JMU’s defense suffocates its opponents from the start with players like redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter and senior John Daka. It’s no secret the starters are arguably the best in the FCS, but the backups have given up the only touchdowns in the previous two games.

Against Saint Francis, the Red Flash marched down the field and broke the shutout after redshirt sophomore wide receiver EJ Jenkins used his height to catch a 10-yard pass in the fourth quarter. Then, against Morgan State, it was another late touchdown given up by the second-string — a 72-yard catch-and-run — that prevented the Dukes from not allowing a touchdown all game. Cignetti also mentioned a specific long third-down conversion from the Bears. 

No. 2: Riley Stapleton, Latrele Palmer add to the Dukes’ gameplan

Week 4 not only signals the Dukes’ first FCS away trip but also the return of Stapleton following his three-game suspension. Cignetti is excited for the Indiana, Pennsylvania, native’s ability to make plays in the red zone. 

“He’s been out there every day at fall camp. He’s been working hard, doing a good job. I know he’s really excited to get back into the mix,” Cignetti said. “We’ll throw him into the rotation, that’s another weapon. That’s a guy that’s caught a lot of balls in his career. It’s a nice big target in the red area.”

In his collegiate career, Stapleton averages 12.7 yards per catch and has 12 touchdowns to his name. His 6-feet-5-inches frame provides another aerial threat for DiNucci to utilize, but the lack of playing time this season may cause an adjustment period for him to find his stride. 

Stapleton won’t be the only new offensive weapon at Cignetti’s disposal. Freshman running back Latrele Palmer saw game time against Morgan State, when he ran for 58 yards off eight carries. The Boyds, Maryland, native also broke off for a 26-yard gain in the fourth quarter. While he didn’t find the end zone against the Bears, his play earned him a chance for more playing time in the Dukes’ trip to Tennessee. 

“We were really excited about him when we signed him,” Cignetti said. “He’s a real good downhill runner and can make people miss. He runs with power, has some speed. He’s a real smart guy, too. He’ll be on the trip to Chattanooga this week, and we’ll just keep evaluating as it goes and see how those roles end up forming.”

Cignetti noted Palmer’s competition in high school as another reason he was excited to gain his signature on signing day. Palmer attended Our Lady of Good Counsel, who plays against the nation’s top teams each year. As a senior for the Falcons, he rushed for over 1,000 yards and notched 15 touchdowns. 

Palmer comes to JMU alongside freshman defensive lineman Jalen Green and freshman linebacker Julio Ayamel, who also attended Good Counsel. Green saw the field against Morgan State and collected two tackles, while Ayamel may be redshirted to retain a year of eligibility. 

No. 3: Men’s soccer excited for showdown with No. 1 Wake Forest

Following Cignetti, Zazenski spoke to fans and press ahead of the Dukes’ contest against top-ranked Wake Forest. It’s the first time since 2012 that JMU hosted the No. 1 team in the country at Sentara Park. The Dukes defeated then-No. 1 UNC after a penalty kick gave them a 1-0 win.

Seven years later, a different school from the Tar Heel state comes to Harrisonburg as the No. 1 team: Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons were upset by Akron in the third round of the 2018 Men’s College Cup, where they were also the No. 1 seed. 

Standing at 5-0-0, freshman Calvin Harris leads Wake Forest with three goals. Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Andrew Pannenberg has notched three shutouts while giving up two goals. Wake is loaded, but the Dukes have answers. 

Coming off of a 6-0 trouncing of Elon — a match that saw freshman forward Dennis Mensah earn his first collegiate hattrick — JMU’s attack is clicking and ready to take on the nation’s top team. 

“It’s only a matter of time for a lot of those guys,” Zazenski said in regards to the team’s freshmen performances. “They’re very solid high school, club, academy players, they just need time to adjust. And when they do adjust, it can be scary.”

Freshman midfielder Clay Obara also found the back of the net for the Dukes this season. A solo-effort against Hofstra broke a 0-0 deadlock ahead of JMU’s 2-0 win

Since its two-match trip to Florida, redshirt junior goalkeeper TJ Bush and the sturdy defense has produced two shutouts in three matches. Zazenski is confident in his backline’s ability to withstand the Wake Forest attack. 

Despite only being in his second season as JMU’s head coach, Zazenski is no stranger to big-time matches. In his first season, he led the Dukes to a CAA regular-season title, a CAA Tournament championship win and a 2018 Men’s College Cup quarterfinal appearance. Wake Forest is another chance for his team to add to its already strong resume of a national championship contender. 

“It’s a big opportunity,” Zazenski said. “I would say playing the No. 1 team in the country anywhere is certainly an exciting thing that you should look forward to and its challenge. But, specifically, when it’s on your home field, it’s something that you should always remember and cherish, win or lose.”

Zazenski went on to say that despite the hype surrounding playing the No. 1 team in the country, it’s just another match to them. The Dukes and Demon Deacons will kick off Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Sentara Park. 

Contact Noah Ziegler at breezesports@gmail.com. For more sports 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.