By Bennett Conlin
That was stressful.
JMU football opened up a 24-0 lead over Utah State on Saturday, and it seemed the Dukes were poised to blow out the Aggies. That’s not what happened.
Utah State rallied from a 38-17 halftime deficit to tie the game at 38 early in the fourth quarter. JMU, despite five sloppy turnovers, mustered enough offense late in the game to win 45-38. The defense, which struggled for much of the day Saturday, forced two key interceptions late to seal the victory.
Here are three key takeaways from the win, and a few honorable mentions that narrowly missed the cut.
Look, JMU has not looked great through four weeks. The Dukes could legitimately be 1-3.
But they’re not.
JMU went to Charlottesville and beat a Power Five team in Week 2. That same Virginia team nearly beat N.C. State at home in Week 4. UVA isn’t awful, and it was a nice win for JMU, even if it only came by one point.
In Week 3, JMU defeated Troy 16-14. Troy won the Sun Belt in 2022, and the Trojans defeated a solid Western Kentucky team 27-24 this past Saturday. Troy is hard to beat, especially on the road. JMU did that, even if the Dukes only won by two points.
Against Utah State, the Dukes gave up huge chunk plays through the air. They turned the ball over five times. Still, they took down a respectable Mountain West program in their third consecutive road game of the season.
Margins be damned, the Dukes are one of only six undefeated Group of Five teams remaining. Three of those six teams have one-possession wins over FCS teams!
Winning is hard.
And while it’s absolutely not sustainable to win every game by one possession — when games hinge on one or two plays, there’s significant variance in who ends up winning — but that doesn’t make the 4-0 start any less sweet.
JMU is undefeated. It hasn’t been a pretty path to 4-0, but who cares?
Editor’s note: Thanks to Christopher William Jewelers for their advertising support this season.
Enjoying JMU’s undefeated start doesn’t mean the Dukes are without critique. There are eight games left this season, and if the team doesn’t make improvements in a few key areas, they’re going to drop multiple games.
One of those areas, in my opinion, is aggressive decision making.
Against Virginia, JMU led 17-7 in the second quarter and faced a fourth-and-five at the UVA 37-yard line. JMU punted. While UVA didn’t score on its next possession, the Cavaliers did score a touchdown before halftime and at one point led 28-17 as JMU’s offense stalled.
Why not try to add to your lead and keep a drive alive?
JMU has obvious defensive flaws (the Dukes can’t defend the pass consistently, in case you hadn’t noticed). The Dukes need to maximize their potential scoring chances, rather than believing they can punt and lean on a lock-down defense like they did in previous FCS seasons.
Later in the UVA game, JMU went for it on a fourth-and-short deep inside their own territory. It failed and UVA quickly added a touchdown. That was not an ideal time to be aggressive, and it makes me wonder if JMU uses “gut feel” rather than an analytics system/department to make fourth-down decisions.
Against Troy, the Dukes were again conservative. They kicked a third-quarter field goal on fourth-and-two from Troy’s 14-yard line when leading 13-7. The kick was good, and they extended their lead to nine.
JMU held on for the win, but Troy attempted a game-winning field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter that missed. Being a tad more aggressive may have helped JMU put the game away earlier, rather than needing Troy’s kicker to fail in a pivotal moment.
Against Utah State, JMU kicked a 20-yard field goal on fourth-and-goal from the USU two-yard line in the first quarter. I understand taking the points, but it felt like a missed opportunity to add seven instead of three.
Later in the game, with a 38-31 lead and momentum flipping to Utah State, JMU ran up the middle for no gain on third-and-nine from the USU 39-yard line. The Dukes punted on the next play.
That sequence made no sense, and it wasn’t nearly aggressive enough given the defense’s woes. At least pass on third down! Or consider rolling the dice on fourth down, given Jordan McCloud’s success (he averaged 10.7 yards per pass) Saturday.
These conservative decisions didn’t cost JMU victories in Weeks 2-4. I’m not of the belief that JMU can remain undefeated (or win 9+ games) this season if it remains this conservative on fourth-down situations in opposing territory, though.
JMU’s results have been fantastic this season, and the coaches deserve major credit for building a culture of resiliency. I can’t emphasize enough how impressed I am by the 4-0 start. The Dukes have been gritty through four weeks.
I also think a few key fourth-down decisions through four weeks are the results of bad process, and it’s time for JMU to become more aggressive on fourth downs in opposing territory.
JMU leads the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 41.5 yards per game.
The passing defense, however, is the sixth-worst unit in college football in terms of yards allowed per game (314.5).
The secondary is an issue. This isn’t new information, but it’s alarming nonetheless.
On the bright side, Curt Cignetti and company are trusting young players in an attempt to fix the issue. Sophomore Chauncey Logan is a starting cornerback. Freshman D’Angelo Ponds is starting to earn significant playing time, and his interception Saturday sealed the win over Utah State.
Even freshman D.J. Barksdale saw the field consistently late in Saturday’s game, earning reps in the defensive backfield. He finished with five tackles and added a nice kick return.
Can the youngsters turn the secondary play around the rest of this season?
Honorable mention: Brown and McCloud
Reggie Brown is silly fast. I knew Brown was a good athlete, but he was running by defenders in impressive fashion Saturday.
JMU’s WR1 finished with five catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns. He’s a game-changing talent given his speed.
Jordan McCloud made his fair share of mistakes (three turnovers) Saturday, but he also finished the game with 390 total yards and six total touchdowns. That’ll work!
McCloud seems to be gaining confidence as the Dukes’ starting quarterback. He’s a talented player and can be one of the better quarterbacks in the Sun Belt when the Dukes give him enough opportunities.
Honorable mention: JMU adjustments
I wrote last week about wanting to see JMU throw more and use Jordan McCloud on zone-read runs. Check and check!
The Dukes threw the ball 34 times compared to 39 runs, which felt like a better balance compared to the week prior. McCloud also scored two easy rushing touchdowns on zone-read plays where he kept the ball.
I was impressed with JMU’s first-half offense, which looked unstoppable. The first-half offense featured creative play calling and a willingness to let McCloud run.
Honorable mention: The broadcast
One of my major takeaways was the Mountain West Network broadcast. It was atrocious!
The local Utah State announcing crew was incredibly biased. At one point, I thought they might cry when Curt Cignetti showed a phone to the officials. The announcers failed to mention that Cignetti had a legitimate point, as the officials clearly missed Utah State running out of bounds on its fake field goal touchdown.
They also wouldn’t stop laughing about Josh “Cheese” Sarratt’s nickname, while simultaneously mispronouncing his last name. They were homers at best and unprofessional at worst.
The camera angles during the broadcast were abysmal, especially on field goal attempts. I’m surprised Utah State is OK with that type of production.
Thank goodness the Dukes won’t play on the Mountain West Network again this fall.