Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
JMU football’s undefeated season is over, as App State (7-4, 5-2 SBC) defeated the Dukes (10-1, 6-1 SBC) 26-23 in an overtime game fans of each team will remember for a long while.
There’s no doubt the loss was disappointing for the Dukes. JMU hosted College GameDay and was a key play or two from picking up one of the most memorable wins in program history.
Instead, the Mountaineers snagged a signature win and finally took care of business in a huge one-possession game. Here are three key takeaways from the thriller.
The Sun Belt rules
This game lived up to the hype. The offensive execution wasn’t all that great in the first three quarters, but each defense made nice plays in the first 45 minutes. In the final quarter and overtime, the Dukes’ offense woke up and the Mountaineers withstood haymakers and threw counterpunches of their own.
It was a high-level football game, which makes sense with the two teams sitting at a combined 16-4 in games against other opponents. App State’s four losses all came by one score, as the Mountaineers aren’t far off from being a top-25 team this season.
JMU, trailing a quality team by double digits, fought hard to have a chance to win. Elijah Sarratt made clutch plays that I’ll remember forever on JMU’s final drives. He helped the Dukes convert a fourth-and-18 to keep their hopes alive, which was followed up by a beautiful touchdown throw and catch, a solid 2-point conversion, and a nice first-down catch in overtime. Sarratt is legit.
App State’s game-winning touchdown was nearly a fumble to give JMU a win, with the final play of the game giving each team hope they’d prevail. In the end, it was the Mountaineers who drew up a nice play, broke multiple tackles, and left Harrisonburg with a win.
The Mountaineers showed up in a hostile road environment and played solid football. Again, it really was a high-level college football matchup.
By most accounts, interactions between JMU and App State fans were positive. While a disappointing loss for JMU, the Sun Belt move is perfect for the program, and Saturday’s atmosphere and game proved that.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Christopher William Jewelers for their advertising support this season.
Running game struggles again
Jordan McCloud was off. JMU’s quarterback played great late, but he missed open throws in the first three quarters and tossed a bad interception.
His “off game” was magnified by JMU’s nonexistent running game. When including sacks, JMU ran for 61 yards on 33 attempts. Oof.
Key injuries along the offensive line – the team’s starting tackles are both out – haven’t helped the running game, but the rushing attack really hasn’t clicked this season regardless of offensive line health. That remained true Saturday. JMU can’t seem to run the ball with any consistency, which puts incredible pressure on McCloud and the passing game.
If McCloud is off, the Dukes don’t have the rushing game to make up for an inconsistent passing game. Saturday, McCloud was off against a good secondary. The result? A lackluster offensive showing for most of the game.
Look for the running game to be offseason priority No. 1, if the Dukes can retain Curt Cignetti. JMU could use running back and offensive line reinforcements in the transfer portal.
In the first nine games of the season, JMU recorded at least three sacks in every game. Against UConn, JMU recorded just one. This week against App State, JMU recorded just one.
The Dukes have played their last two games without star pass rusher Jalen Green, and his absence has been noticeable against teams that don’t allow many sacks in the first place. JMU didn’t generate much pressure Saturday, allowing App State’s Joey Aguilar time to pick apart the defense. He threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns.
Late in the game, JMU brought blitzes in the hope of getting to Aguilar. App State’s talented quarterback continually got the ball out quickly, neutralizing JMU’s blitzes.
Without Green, JMU’s defense hasn’t been quite as dominant up front. It speaks to Green’s talent. His absence is significant.
Bonus takeaway: Season isn’t over
JMU’s undefeated season is dead. The season isn’t over, though.
A win Saturday over Coastal Carolina gives the Dukes a first-place finish in the Sun Belt East for the second consecutive season. That’s a huge deal.
There’s an outside chance, through legal action, JMU could become eligible for the Sun Belt Championship. Even if that doesn’t happen, however, JMU has a shot at playing in a bowl game if there aren’t enough 6-6 teams to fill all 82 open bowl slots.
JMU has a chance to end the season 12-1 with a division title and the first bowl victory in school history. Even with a loss, that’s special. There’s a lot left to play for in the final stretch of this season.