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Countdown Q&A; Week 9-James Madison

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 16 James Madison at Richmond Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Cards are riding high off a Top 10 win and are walking into Cardinal Stadium this Saturday on a three game win streak, something I certainly didn’t envision a month ago and something I’ve been very excited to see in terms of team growth and development since back in September. Something I was NOT super excited about in September and I’m still not excited about in November is a buy game against a former FCS juggernaut who has already started to create havoc in the Sun Belt in their first season of FBS football. While we publicly shame the group who scheduled this game, and the team prepares for the game, all I need to do is a ask some questions.

This week I got to talk with Grant Johnson from over at ‘The Breeze’, the JMU Online Newspaper, who did a great job giving us some insight into the Dukes and what we as fans can be on the look out for tomorrow night. Because I asked nicely we were ‘Granted’ access into Mr. Johnson’s thoughts for a short period of time, lets see what we can pull out of there...

Got to be honest with you Grant, before a single snap of football had been played in 2022 this game scared the “dukes” out of me, and I was not excited about scheduling this team as a buy game, knowing just how dangerous they have been at the lower level. For those not up on JMU football, tell us a bit about the transition to the Sunbelt and how the season has gone thus far.

NCAA Division I FCS Men’s Football Championship Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The season was going about as good as anyone in JMU circles could imagine through five weeks. They were undefeated at 5-0, ranked in the AP top 25 and the defense was one of the best in the FBS, while graduate transfer quarterback Todd Centeio lit up secondary's week in and week out.

That all changed Oct. 15 vs. Georgia Southern. JMU turned the ball over four times on offense — five times if you include a blocked punt — and lost 45-38, giving up the most passing yards in program history to Kyle Vantrease, a whopping 576. Then, the next week in practice just 48 hours out from playing Marshall in the Homecoming game, Centeio suffered a “freak” injury in practice as head coach Curt Cignetti called it and was out. Backup quarterback Billy Atkins threw four interceptions behind an also-injured offensive line and JMU lost to Marshall 26-12, which brings the Dukes to 5-2 (3-2 Sun Belt) currently. Still, in the context of their first season in the FBS, 5-2 is close to the ceiling most people had on JMU through seven games. I thought they’d be lucky to get to five wins before the year started, but I’ve been proven wrong.

One could argue that the Dukes QB, Todd Centeio, is one of the best ball slingers in the country, with the stats to back it up through the first six games. JMU was without Centeio last week due to a pulled oblique and his absence was noticeable against Marshall. Tell us a bit about what Todd brings to the offense and any word you’ve heard about his availability this week against the Cards.

JMU head coach Curt Cignetti has been tight-lipped about Centeio’s availability. In fact, media weren’t allowed to attend Tuesday practice, which is usually when we’re able to go on the field for the first part of practice and see the team. My hunch says Centeio plays, but that isn’t going off much. I don’t think Cignetti’s concerned about Louisville knowing if Atkins will play as much as he wants to keep it concealed that Centeio will play.

Centeio, though, is electric when healthy. He’s a threat to both run and pass, and he’s able to make plays with his legs when nothing’s open downfield, which Atkins didn’t do against Marshall. At 220 pounds, he’s a load for safeties and corners to tackle when he gets into open space. He’s shown ability to hit both the intermediate and deep ball this season, but it’s frequently on one-read run-pass options where he doesn’t have to scan the field. Regardless, JMU’s built a system that fits Centeio to a T, and he’s so fun to talk to in press conferences and watch on the field when JMU’s offense is humming.

While JMU’s Top 15 ranking nationally in scoring (38.7pt/g) centers around “Toddy” they have some other weapons on that side of the ball both at running back and receiver. Who should we keep keeping an eye on when the Dukes have the ball?

2021 NCAA Division I FCS Football Championship - Quarterfinals - North Dakota v James Madison Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Look out for wide receivers Kris Thornton and Reggie Brown. Thornton has been a staple in JMU’s offense for multiple years now and is coming off an 80-plus catch, 1,000 yard season. He leads JMU in receiving this year by a long shot. I’ve joked around with him, asking if he ever gets tired from going in motion before almost every snap. Think of Thornton as a “gadget” receiver who’s still able to take the top off the defense and run past people. He’s 5-foot-8 but can still win 50-50 balls. Most of his catches come on bubble screens and quick routes to the outside, though. He’ll also get a reverse handoff or two most games.

Brown, on the other hand, does most of his damage on slants off Centeio run-pass options. He’s a bigger receiver who fits more of the go-up-and-get-it mold. He popped off the last time Centeio was healthy against Georgia Southern for a career-high in catches and receiving yards — 136 yards on 8 catches.

In the backfield, it can be anyone’s game. Latrele Palmer has gone off for big games this year vs. Texas State and many times last year. He’s a bigger back who admittedly loves rain games and carries late in the game. Percy Agyei-Obese is the veteran and locker-room leader of the bunch who can do it all — power running, make defenders miss in open space, etc. But someone in the backfield who may be poised for a big game and a lot of carries Saturday is Kaelon Black. He’s dealt with a broken finger the last few weeks, but when healthy, he’s arguably the most talented running back JMU can deploy. He’s electric in open space and can catch the ball out of the backfield.

The Cards defense played out of their gourd (Happy belated Halloween) last week, creating all types of issues for Wake in ball security and protecting their QB. Louisville currently sits at #4 nationally in TO margin (+11) and #1 in the nation in sacks (33). Is this a concern for you? How do you think JMU will counter this aggressive approach?

Yes, it’s most definitely a concern for JMU. The Dukes have turned the ball over aplenty the last two weeks — nine offensive turnovers and two on special teams. Last year, though, they had the best turnover margin in the FCS, so this turnover phase is uncharted waters for them. But JMU needs to do a better job holding up in pass protection and has to stick with its run game to open up the pass so that Atkins or Centeio aren’t forcing throws downfield.

To counter it, again, it starts with establishing the run. JMU’s offense looked so dominant at the start of the year because, yes, No. 1, the competition wasn’t as good, but also because they moved the ball at will on the ground. When that happened, on top of Centeio being a running threat, Brown and Thornton saw one-on-one opportunities and made plays downfield. That’s when JMU’s at its best, but I’m skeptical they can get back to it against Louisville’s defense if the Dukes’ O line is still missing their two offensive tackles.

The Cards came into the year with some question marks on offense and have struggled a bit to get things going. The return of Tiyon Evans at running back last week helped ignite the ground game and Malik did some things through the air to help put the team in a position to win. What’s the defensive strategy for JMU? How do they traditionally fare against dual-threat QBs?

Surprisingly enough, JMU hasn’t faced a dual-threat QB nearly to the caliber as Malik Cunningham this year, so time will tell how JMU defends him. The closest comparison might be in 2019 facing North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, but obviously, the personnel is completely different now.

But from what we’ve seen this year, JMU’s coaching staff should have a good game plan ready for Cunningham. JMU’s used one of their faster backup quarterbacks on the scout team to try to emulate Cunningham in redshirt freshman Alonza Barnett III, but it’s impossible to do so entirely. JMU has fast linebackers in Taurus Jones and Jailin Walker, the latter a midseason All-American, as well as smaller, quicker defensive linemen who could likely hold their own when Cunningham breaks the pocket or takes it around the edge on read options.

If you ask a casual Louisville fan for their pet peeves of the fanbase, undoubtedly a Top 5 complaint would be arriving late and/or leaving early to most games. Sounds like JMU has some of the same frustrations. Care to commiserate together on the topic?

Indiana State v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Yeah… it’s a hot topic in the JMU community, especially after last week, when JMU led only 12-9 at the half versus Marshall and still, most of Bridgeforth Stadium left. Added on top of that, it was JMU’s highest-attended game.

It’s a deep-rooted issue for JMU. Fans have grown used to seeing JMU blow out FCS opponents over the last decade-plus, so when they leave at halftime, there’s no consequence. I think it’ll take some time for that culture to change, as all things do. But there will likely be a time when JMU fans buy into their new normal of playing close games into the third and fourth quarters, and they stay for the action on the field.

Self plug, my co-sports editor for The Breeze, Madison Hricik, and I just wrote a story diving into the fan predicament at JMU football games, which is linked here!

As I type this out Louisville is hovering around being a 10 point favorite at home, under the lights this Saturday. Let’s assume a healthy Centeio is on the field this week as we kick it off, as that obviously plays a big part in the potential outcome. How do you see this one playing out?

JMU head coach Curt Cignetti called Louisville the best team in the ACC this week. He said they’re playing like a top 10 team. And after what the Cardinals did last week to Wake Forest, it’s hard to argue with that.

If Centeio plays, then yes, it should be close. But I think Louisville will be too much to handle and they take care of business in front of its home crowd, 31-23.


Big thanks to Grant for his time. Feel free to check him out over on twitter right here and you can follow ‘The Breeze’ right here. This game will be a dog fight because of the style of play and how James Madison attacks each of their opponents. I do feel more confident today than I did maybe three weeks ago, but the goal hasn’t this game by any means necessary to get bowl eligible, and then turn your attention to a very significant three game stretch that will frame what the offseason looks like for 2023. Just. Win. The. Game. #GoCards