Evaluating The Dukes After Six Games
HARRISONBURG — The end-of-season goals are in play and this year’s version of the James Madison football team can accomplish the same feats the best squads in program history did.
At the midway point of the regular-season schedule, the Dukes are ranked No. 2 in the STATS FCS Top 25 and Coaches Poll, are 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association. They’ve won five straight and three in a row on the road.
“We pulled it out after some adversity,” JMU wide receiver Brandon Polk said following Saturday’s overtime win at Stony Brook. “But the team is coming together and it actually makes us closer, definitely, as a team that it happened, so I’m just excited to move forward with this season.”
Madison’s most thrilling win of the first half was its 45-38 victory over the Seawolves on Long Island, needing a rushing score from running back Jawon Hamilton in the extra period to secure the game. Its most dominant performance came at Elon, thrashing the Phoenix 45-10 in Week 5 during coach Curt Cignetti’s return to the school where he spent the past two seasons in the same role. The only contest that got away from JMU was its season-opening loss at FBS West Virginia as the Mountaineers took advantage of three turnovers to derail the Dukes’ hopes of an upset in a 20-13 decision.
With six weeks in the books, here are some evaluations at the midway point:
This is as clear-cut as it gets and Cignetti said senior quarterback Ben DiNucci is “why we’re as productive offensively as we are.”
The signal-caller has progressed immensely in his second season as the team’s starter. He’s on pace to throw 16 touchdowns compared to only four interceptions by the end of the regular season this year, which would be a major upgrade from the 16 touchdown-to-12 interception ratio he had a year ago.
Through the first half of the campaign, DiNucci completed 72 percent of his throws for 1,284 yards and eight touchdowns while running for 277 yards and two scores. He picked up 17 first downs with his legs, and committed only one crippling error — a fourth-quarter interception in the loss at West Virginia.
Cignetti said although DiNucci can still make improvements, he’s gained confidence and his teammates trust him.
“When you’re playing well on the field, I think you have credibility and people see that,” Cignetti said of his quarterback. “And I’ve always thought the quarterback position was overrated in terms of the things that he says. That’s all about production and being a good, team player because guys are going to respect [a quarterback] that produces and is a good, team guy. And so there’s a belief growing [in DiNucci], there’s no doubt about it.”
Club or no club on his hand, senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway stabilizes JMU’s defense.
He has 24 more tackles than anyone else on the roster, leading the team with 50 total takedowns to go along with 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, two pass breakups and half a sack.
And there was some concern about Holloway ahead of the opener, considering he had hand surgery a few days into August training camp and didn’t practice until the week of playing at West Virginia.
The protective wrap is off his hand now, but even when the Heritage High School product had the cast on, it didn’t alter his aggressive style of play. In Week 3 against Morgan State, he ripped the ball away and recovered the fumble from Bears quarterback DJ Golatt Jr. on a fourth-and-1 sneak attempt during the first possession of the contest. The turnover expedited a blowout victory for the Dukes.
Most Impactful Newcomer
DiNucci said it best after watching Polk turn a catch on an 8-yard hitch route into a 48-yard touchdown as he sprinted past the Chattanooga defense in Week 4.
“We knew he could burn a little bit when he got here,” DiNucci said about Polk following the Dukes’ road win over the Mocs. “But I think that play right there was kind of like, ‘Whoa,’ because he split a few safeties and took that thing. But we were lacking that last year and didn’t have a guy that could really stretch the field vertically like that, so he’s been a huge help.”
A Penn State transfer, Polk has proved to fit in well since Cignetti, safeties coach Ryan Smith and defensive tackles coach Andrew Jackson convinced him to join the Dukes in the offseason. Smith and Jackson, who were both grad assistants at Penn State in the past, had a previous relationship with Polk.
Through six games, the receiver leads JMU with 25 catches for 438 yards and three scores.
“I love being here,” Polk said. “I love every second of playing with these guys. I know I came from Penn State, but they brought me in like I came in here as a freshman. I love all the guys in the locker room and I’m thankful for the opportunity here.”
Before Saturday, Stony Brook ranked second in the CAA for rush defense. Ahead of JMU’s conference opener at Elon, the Phoenix ranked second in the CAA for rush defense.
And the Monday after both teams met the Dukes, those squads plummeted in the league rankings for rushing defense.
“I know there was a saying that no one could really run on Stony Brook this year,” Hamilton said. “But we kind of wanted to prove people wrong and show ‘em what we’re made of. And like Coach Cignetti said, we want to lead the country in rushing so that’s what we’re going to do.”
In each of the last two weeks, Madison has eclipsed 300 rushing yards and leads the CAA while averaging 268.2 yards on the ground per game for the season. Between a seasoned offensive line and a trio of capable backs, Cignetti and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery can use the offense exactly how they want to.
“[Offensive line coach] Damian Wroblewski does a great job with our line,” Cignetti said. “I thought coming out of spring we had a chance to have a really good line and we’re starting to play well. We’re very physical up front and that includes the tight ends also. We have a number of guys that have a number of starts under their belt. We’re winning the one-on-one battles and we’re blocking the right guys.”
Hamilton, Percy Agyei-Obese and Solomon Vanhorse all have at least 329 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns at the midpoint of the season.
To survive Stony Brook, JMU overcame its woeful secondary play.
Seawolves quarterback Tyquell Fields threw for 318 yards and two touchdowns. He had eight passes go for a gain of more than 20 yards.
“I thought he made some great throws against us,” Cignetti said. “Some of our issues were in alignment, some of it was ball-in-air, but we’re going to have to improve because we’re trying to make people on dimensional on defense with stopping the run, but you’ve got to cover the deep ball, too.”
Most of Saturday, JMU was without its top two cornerbacks — Rashad Robinson and Wesley McCormick. Robinson missed two of the past three games with injury and Cignetti said he’s hopeful Robinson returns this Saturday against Villanova.
But if he doesn’t or McCormick can’t play either, the less experienced corners on the roster — Taurus Carroll and Willie Drew — must accelerate their learning curves.
Just Scratching The Surface
Similar to the dominance the offensive line showed, the Dukes defensive front is beginning to flex the same strength.
The four starters — Ron’Dell Carter, John Daka, Mike Greene and Adeeb Atariwa — have helped JMU become the conference’s leader for rush defense (71.2 yards allowed per game) with strong play against the opposition’s ground game all year long.
What’s more encouraging, and ahead of the Chattanooga game Daka said this would happen, the front four are getting more pressure on the quarterback as they’ve acquired more comfort in defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman’s system.
JMU has notched five sacks in each of the last two games.
“Daka is really twitched up,” Cignetti said. “He’s got great get-off. He really runs fast. He’s a good pass rusher and he’s played a lot of football and he’s improving every week, so his consistency is improving. He’s still is in the wrong gap occasionally and there’s still some things we have to clean up, but when you have him on one side and Ron’Dell on the other and Mike Greene and Adeeb inside, you’ve got the potential to create some issues for an offensive line.”
Can Get Corrected
One issue that can be cleaned up is ball security. This isn’t a problem of the Dukes not having talented enough players or the coaching staff to fix it, but it just needs to be corrected sooner rather than later.
JMU had 14 fumbles and lost seven of them through the first six weeks of the season. The lack of protecting the football cost the Dukes a win over FBS competition in Week 1 and nearly got them beat against Stony Brook on Saturday.
Returning an onside kick for a score is always going win this superlative.
Last month, Morgan State tried to catch Madison off guard with an onside kick and Devin Ravenel was ready. He secured the ball and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown in the easy win.
Toughest Remaining Game
Coming into the year, this game wouldn’t have been circled as the toughest test in the second half of the season for JMU, but Saturday against Villanova in Harrisonburg is it.
The No. 5 Wildcats are 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the league with wins over Towson and Maine to prove what they’ve done is no fluke.