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JMU is Not Your Average FCS School



Hi there. I’m Chase Kiddy, a content editor with WV Sports Now. You may not recognize my name — that’s because a good editor does his job from outside of the spotlight. I want you to know Schuyler, and Chris, and Zach, and Gresko, and the rest of the gang. Those guys are the ones giving you great content every week, not me.

Like most of our staff, I try to cover WVU Athletics enthusiastically. Many of us live/have lived in West Virginia and keep a close eye on the sports teams. For my part, I attended Cheat Lake Elementary school in the late 90s, before my parents relocated my sister and I to Virginia in 2000.
I ended up going to a little school called James Madison University.

So, yes, I don’t normally write posts here at WVSN. But here I am, with proverbial pen & paper out on the desk. I’m emerging from my editorial cave to give you the insider’s perspective on the Dukes of JMU, a team which I have covered in print and online since 2011.


The first thing you should know about JMU is that it is not some quaint school with an irrelevant Athletics program. Some fast facts, in no particular order:


1) JMU is located about 20 miles from the West Virginia border and has an enrollment of 20,000 undergrad students. Like WVU, it has a bit of a reputation as a party school. Quick story: about 10 years ago, a JMU had its annual Springfest party — think of a less formal version of FallFest, where the live music is replaced by all-day parties that spill out of townhouses. Anyway, it got way too big, and too many out-of-towners got way too rowdy, and the next thing you know, the mob is throwing beer bottles at cops. Riot squads were deployed, tear gas was shot into a crowd of 15,000 people, and the whole thing ended up on CNN. A few months later, Playboy stopped ranking JMU on its annual party school list, because they “refused to rank professionals on a list full of amateurs.”

I’m pretty sure they’ve used that line before to describe WVU, too. My point is this: JMU is not a small liberal arts college in Virginia, as you might think of with other FCS schools. It’s big, and loud, and brash, and the football team fully intends to come take your lunch money this weekend. (More on that in a second.)


2) The JMU Athletics budget is north of $50 million, putting it in the same neighborhood as familiar WVU foes like East Carolina and Cincinnati. JMU won its first FCS National Championship in 2004; it beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg in 2010, in a hilarious game that JMU fans still talk about/troll Tech fans about; it also beat Southern Methodist in ’15 and ECU in ’17, but those teams were so bad that it’s barely worth mentioning. If you care, JMU also has really good athletics programs across the board — the Dukes won a national championship in women’s lacrosse in 2018, beating Boston College and North Carolina in the title game. Men’s Soccer nearly made the Final Four last year; Field Hockey won a D1 national title in the 90s; Men’s Basketball was seconds away from upsetting Michael Jordan’s Tarheels in the NCAA Tournament in the 80s. Again, the point here is that JMU is not some pushover program — this is a school with P5 clout in a mid-major’s body.


3) JMU has been good for about 20 years, but it only became a legitimately scary team to P5 schools recently. Head Coach Mike Houston, who is now at ECU, showed up in 2016 and beat North Dakota State en route to a national title that year; it played North Dakota State in a title game rematch in 2017, which is still the greatest football game I’ve ever seen live. It’s hosted College GameDay twice in the last four years. Curt Cignetti, whose father helmed WVU Football prior to Don Nehlen’s arrival, is JMU’s new coach. At the same time we (WVU) are kicking off the Neal Brown era this Saturday, we (JMU) will begin the Cignetti era. The major difference appears to be that, while West Virginia may need to build itself back up to championship contention, JMU is already there. The Dukes are No. 1 or No. 2 in every major preseason poll.

So, why did I just drop 20 years of context on you? It’s because I really need my fellow West Virginia fans &  players to understand this: JMU is not just another FCS school. In fact, depending on who in Harrisonburg you ask, it might be a school that’s actively positioning itself to move up to FBS, straight past the MAC/Sun Belt and into the American Athletic Conference. Recall from my earlier knowledge bomb that JMU is 2-0 against the AAC in the past five years. Another high-profile FBS upset could move the American one step closer to extending an offer to JMU as a replacement for UConn.

When you start to look at JMU as a middle-tier AAC team, instead of an FCS team, the details around this game start to make a little more sense. West Virginia is a 7-point favorite, which is surely its smallest-ever projected margin of victory against a team from a lower subdivision. (Last year, for example, WVU closed as a 34-point favorite over Youngstown State.) For JMU’s part, many of its projected starters chose to play for the Purple & Gold over other G5 scholarship offers. They’re active in the transfer market, too, if they feel a player fits the team’s culture. Starting linebacker Landan Word is an ACC transfer; All-American Defensive End Ron’Dell Carter is a Big 10 transfer. Starting DB Wayne Davis is an Ohio State guy.

Oh, and brace yourself for this next one: before he was the starting quarterback at JMU, Ben DiNucci was the starting quarterback at Pitt.

What does this mysterious product look like on the field? It’s tough to say for sure, since JMU is breaking in a new coaching staff of its own. The players and coaches I’ve spoken with haven’t indicated that much has changed from 2018 to 2019, which means JMU wants to field a dynamic run game and a complementary, explosive pass game.

Offensively, JMU has a lot of talent, but it doesn’t consistently put all the pieces together. The Dukes’ offense will never be mistaken for an Air Raid, but Cignetti & Co. won’t be afraid to throw the ball down the field. DiNucci is some combination of Skyler Howard’s skill set and Baker Mayfield’s swagger. He will flash his escapability in the pocket, get first downs in a variety of ways, and talk a whole lot of junk to West Virginia defensive players. JMU has two very good runningbacks, as well as an All-American receiver named Riley Stapleton who won’t play this Saturday against West Virginia thanks to an off-season suspension.

Defensively, JMU is very, very good. In the past, JMU has run a 4-2-5 defense with elite playmakers at all three levels. The starting defensive line is, in my opinion, a P5-caliber unit. All-American Corner Rashad Robinson didn’t play in 2018 because of a toe injury, but he is a projected 2020 NFL Draft pick. (His former teammate, Jimmy Moreland, was drafted by the Redskins last spring and is annihilating people right now during the preseason; Robinson is better than he is.) Neal Brown spoke over the weekend about how JMU actually has more projected draft picks than West Virginia this year, and the defense is the major reason why.

Special Teams is an area where most FCS schools can never get consistently good players. Unsurprisingly, JMU breaks the mold, with a very good Aussie punter named Harry O’Kelly, and an equally impressive place kicker named Ethan Ratke. JMU routinely runs back punt and kick returns, too, thanks to All-American D’Angelo Amos. Right now, I would rank JMU’s Special Teams units as noticeably better than West Virginia.

All this adds up to a team that isn’t going to show up to collect a check and go home. JMU wants to win this game, and the players and fans both truly believe that it’s possible. This is a team that has won national championships and expects to compete for another one this season — it’s not afraid of an August game in Morgantown.


So where does West Virginia have advantages in this game? The biggest might be the Mountaineer D-Line against JMU’s offensive front. JMU will be able to play toe-to-toe with WVU in several parts of Saturday’s game, but they certainly will not have faced anything quite like the Stills brothers. I believe West Virginia’s best strategy to win involves bottling up a pretty dynamic run game and pressuring DiNucci, who has a history of turning the ball over if he’s feeling battered or out of rhythm. It’s pretty rare, but when JMU is made into a one-dimensional team, they look pretty mortal. A 2017 playoff game against Weber State comes to mind.

On the other hand, JMU can win by exploiting the inexperienced players on West Virginia’s back end. WVU catches a break here, with six-foot-five Stapleton out of the lineup. I still expect lots of screens and quick outs, though, so the DBs will need to be on their game, lest the Dukes dink and dunk their way downfield.

Bottom line? I think West Virginia wins this weekend. I think the score will be something like 34-24. Don’t expect a ton of offense; don’t expect a blowout; don’t decry the fate of the team if West Virginia doesn’t cover the spread against this particular FCS school.

I can tell you first-hand that quite a few JMU alumni (including myself) are making the trip to Morgantown this weekend. Grab us in blue lot and let’s spill some beer! When our teams aren’t playing on Saturdays, WVU & JMU fans are natural allies.

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