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Behind enemy lines: Previewing JMU with the Dukes expert Bennett Conlin

Former Daily Progress beat writer and co-founder of JMU Sports News Bennett Conlin breaks down what to know about the Dukes.

Photo courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

Ahead of the Virginia Cavaliers’ home opener against the James Madison Dukes this Saturday at noon, we caught up with the legendary former Daily Progress Virginia beat writer Bennett Conlin to preview the matchup. Bennett’s one of the best in the business, and a great guy to boot. So it’s our great benefit to have his perspective on the Dukes as a co-founder of JMU Sports News and a JMU alum.

I also answered Bennett’s questions about my thoughts heading into Saturday’s game which you can read here. Onto the questions!

James Madison’s burst onto the FBS scene last year seemed unexpected and unprecedented from the outside. What’s worked so well for Curt Cignetti and his staff in building this program into being legitimately competitive at the FBS level so quickly? Is it a statement for the strength of FCS football? And can we please get some of that magic in Charlottesville?

Haha, can JMU trade its magic for Malachi Fields? If so, you might have a deal.

I was surprised JMU won eight games in 2022, and there’s a case the Dukes should’ve won 10 of their 11 games. Curt Cignetti and company have done well to recruit FBS-caliber players, especially in the trenches.

Interior line strength helped the Dukes make the FBS leap – only Georgia allowed fewer rushing yards per game last season – and JMU’s elite quarterback play didn’t hurt either. Colorado State transfer Todd Centeio was one of the Sun Belt’s best in 2022, throwing for 9.5 yards per attempt and finishing the year with 25 touchdown passes compared to just five interceptions.

I’d argue there’s not that big of a difference between the best FCS teams and the average FBS team. The Dukes lost to West Virginia 20-13 in 2019 despite losing the turnover battle 3-0. A year prior, JMU lost to North Carolina State 24-13 in a game that saw the Dukes settle for two 19-yard field goals. The FCS Dukes have come close to taking down Power Five teams the last few years, and they upset Virginia Tech in 2010.

There’s a reason Power Five teams try to avoid scheduling North Dakota State. There’s definitely a difference between the lower-tier of the FCS and the FBS, though. Fortunately for JMU, the Dukes made the leap after being an FCS national title contender for several years in a row.

In the last two seasons, JMU saw starters transfer to Texas, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Ole Miss. The Dukes haven’t lacked FBS talent.

What’re the expectations for JMU in year two of FBS football? It seems like there have been some fairly notable departures, but are those expected to result in a noticeably worse football team?

JMU was picked as the preseason favorite in the Sun Belt East, ahead of programs like Coastal Carolina, App State, and Marshall. Internally, the Dukes fully expect to win eight or more games again this fall, but they have lost a few important pieces.

Most notably, Centeio graduated. JMU started redshirt freshman quarterback Alonza Barnett III against Bucknell last week, and the talented young quarterback developed a case of the yips. He was missing wide open receivers, leaving coaches a bit stunned as they went to halftime with a whopping 15 passing yards.

Barnett was benched early in the second half for Arizona transfer Jordan McCloud, who began his college career at South Florida. McCloud made a misread or two, but largely excelled and finished 7-11 for 144 yards and two scores. He’ll start Saturday, the 20th start of his career.

Questions in the passing game extend to the wide receiver position. Reliable slot receiver Kris Thornton graduated, leaving JMU with Reggie Brown as its trusted WR1. Outside of Brown, the Dukes boast North Dakota State transfer Phoenix Sproles and a bunch of unproven young talent.

If JMU’s passing attack looks like it did in the first half Saturday against Bucknell, Virginia fans will celebrate a home-opening win.

What needs to happen for JMU to beat UVA on Saturday?

Passing for more than 15 yards in a half feels important! So that’s one key.

Additionally, the Dukes’ defense is built on stopping the run, so the defensive scheme leads to 1-on-1 matchups on the outside. If JMU’s defensive line plays well, the Dukes should do well to limit UVA’s offense, especially with Muskett banged up. If UVA’s offensive line bounces back after last week, Malachi Fields is due for a big game.

I like JMU’s cornerbacks, especially Chauncey Logan, but I don’t love them against a player of Fields’ caliber. He’s one of the most underrated players in the ACC, and Virginia should try to target him 10+ times this weekend.

If JMU can pressure the quarterback and effectively limit Fields’ chances, the Dukes are good enough to keep UVA under 20 points. If Virginia protects its quarterback consistently and Fields breaks free for a few big gains, JMU fans could have flashbacks to when Georgia Southern passed for nearly 600 yards against the secondary last fall.

4. What’s your score prediction for Saturday’s game? How do you think it plays out?

I have JMU winning 27-17, with much of this prediction based on Virginia’s injuries and McCloud’s starting experience. If Muskett isn’t 100%, I’m concerned about UVA’s chances. If he plays and looks like himself, I’d expect a tighter game with each side starting an experienced quarterback.

Honestly, though, I’m just looking forward to being in attendance. It means a lot to JMU fans like myself that this game is happening, and I know JMU fans are excited for any friendly banter between the two fanbases.

I also think JMU fans understand the emotional significance of Saturday for Virginia fans. I believe the JMU fanbase, as eager as it is to beat another Power Five team, knows that for the UVA community, Saturday is about honoring Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr., and D’Sean Perry.

A big thanks to Bennett for answering our questions about tomorrow’s game! Stay tuned to the blog for further updates before, during, and after the in state battle!