DiNucci handoff

Ben DiNucci fakes a run as he hands the ball off.

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Two weeks into the season, there’s been an all-time high on the weirdness scale for JMU football. The Dukes, who aren’t known for losing football games, dropped their season opener to NC State before winning in Norfolk State after just one quarter of action.

To make things even more quirky, the presence of Hurricane Florence has moved what was originally this Saturday’s matchup against Robert Morris to Thursday under the lights. Nonetheless, this JMU team is prepared to add another win to the column as it gears up for CAA play the following week. 

1.  Actually play the game

For a team that’s only played five quarters of action in its first two weeks, JMU wasn’t  ready to lose another opportunity to get on the field. The weather last weekend was something no one could control, but the Dukes were prepared to finish that game at any cost.

“Playing one quarter the other night kind of leaves you feeling a little empty,” head coach Mike Houston said. “They wanted to play a full game, they were ready to play a game on Sunday. They’re anxious, excited and ready to go play a football game.”

Getting necessary reps for a young team on defense and new quarterback early on in the season is key to the program’s success. Finding a rhythm in Week 1 can carry momentum and consistency all the way to a national championship if it’s found, but the Dukes have only begun to get things clicking.

“You always want to play,” offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said. “That was frustrating the other night, ya know we came out great … and then the game ended right when you’re just starting to get a sweat going a little bit.” 

Moving the game up to Thursday removes any risk of it being canceled Saturday, but more importantly, it’ll give the team a full 60 minutes of action to gear up for the rest of the year. With at least two full games played before conference play begins, the Dukes will feel much better about themselves before the season gets tough.

2.  Get up to pace

While the Dukes will be ready come Thursday, that doesn’t mean the last week hasn’t blurred before their eyes. From traveling to Norfolk State on Friday, waiting over two hours in delays just to play 15 minutes of football and driving right back to Harrisonburg late Saturday night, things quickly became weird.

“It’s a time warp right now, no question about it,” Kirkpatrick said. “We went from Tuesday to Thursday in a matter of two minutes right there.”

To then add in the fact that the team has to cram a week of practice and preparation into roughly three days, its sole focus on the game is to not fall behind. With this time restraint, the Dukes essentially have to maintain the mindset of an NFL team, which occasionally faces the same amount of off days. Fortunately, JMU has several members with NFL experience — including defensive coordinator Bob Trott — to help guide the team through this quickened process.

“I think we’ve showed a lot of maturity,” junior defensive lineman John Daka said. “The coaches were very pleased on how we handled the Norfolk State game … and this week we just need to narrow our focus more than ever.” 

3. Pound the ball 

Despite moving the game up a couple days, there’s still a good chance the Dukes will be playing under testy weather conditions. With the potential of rain pouring down on Bridgeforth Stadium and a successful passing game at risk, this game will be won on the ground with the rushing attack.

After struggling on the ground in Week 1 — excluding the long rush from senior running back Marcus Marshall and quarterback keepers from redshirt junior Ben DiNucci — it looked as though the run offense was clicking toward the end of the first quarter. The Dukes averaged 8.2 yards per carry and had a net gain of 104 yards.

That play also helped make up for an iffy passing game, where DiNucci completed just one of his six pass attempts. Given the conditions, gametime could be similar or worse than what was seen last Saturday, the importance of winning up front is crucial.

“Well, I think we always want to run the ball,” Kirkpatrick said. “That’s kind of the game within the game out there. So if you have adverse weather, I think that becomes even more important.”

Should the environment take its toll on the players come the beginning of the game, things will be interesting to watch out of the gate. But with the plethora of running backs available, a strong offensive line and the running ability of its quarterback, JMU should be able to seal this game with the rushing attack.

 

4. Enjoy being back in Bridgeforth

Teams love to play at home. That’s probably why William & Mary didn’t want to move their now-canceled game against Elon to a neutral site. There’s a comfort in playing at home, which is why JMU coaches and players alike are amped to play in Bridgeforth for the first time in 272 days.

While the conditions surrounding the game may not bring out the greatest number of fans, there’s an ease of playing at home. You don’t have to travel the night before and wake up in a foreign town the morning of. Instead, you get to prepare in your locker room and go through a normal pregame ritual.

“I hate away games,” Daka said. “I love being in front of our home crowd, I love the energy that our fans bring to Bridgeforth Stadium.”

When the Dukes storm out of the tunnel on Thursday, a looming cloud may be stuck above their heads. But with JMU playing back in front of friends, family and the rest of JMU Nation, this game will be anything but clouded.

“I just can’t wait to be out there with all my friends and family watching me in our environment,” Daka said. “There’s nothing like playing in this stadium and I’ve definitely missed it.” 

Contact Blake Pace at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

This article originally ran on breezejmu.org.

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