James Madison University lost its first game as an FBS football club on Saturday, dropping an insane game at Georgia Southern, 45-38.
It was also the first time JMU failed to cover this year in the college football betting odds market, for those who care about such things.
In the words of SNL’s Stefon, this loss had everything.
Interceptions! Blocked punts! Terrible review calls! A field storm! An all-time program record for passing yards!
Feels Like the First Time
I pounded about 2,000 words out of my keyboard on Saturday night, immediately after JMU’s loss. But I learned very early on in my Breeze tenor, many moons ago, that I usually do my best work when I write a draft at night, then revisit with edits in the morning.
That’s the case here, as I’m coming to JMU’s inaugural FBS loss with fresh eyes on Sunday morning. I’ll talk about some of the things that went wrong below, but more than anything, I’m just left with a feeling I referenced in last week’s observations: This is the kind of thing that happens in FBS road conference games.
Sometimes, you go on the road. Players make bad decisions. Coaches focus on the wrong thing. Refs make a bad call. All of a sudden, you’ve lost to a .500 team that’s probably an inferior opponent. They’re called upsets for a reason.
In a perverse sort of way, I am enjoying this loss because it’s the cost of an FBS program. The stakes are real. The ammunition is live. The natural counterbalance to having a great team is that your team can’t play poorly and win.
“You can’t turn the ball over four times on offense and get a punt blocked for a touchdown and expect to win a football game,” head coach Curt Cignetti said after the game. Yes. Cosign.
When you go on the road in the Sun Belt and have to play against teams that aren’t named after 17th century Monarchs, the result is that poor games become losses.
Special Teams Is JMU’s Most Fundamental Problem
You don’t have to be John Madden to know that special teams was an issue in a game where 1) JMU lost by 7, and 2) JMU had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown.
But the problems run much deeper than just punt blocking. JMU is an offensively gifted team, but Cignetti and his offense don’t have the ability to make more nuanced decisions when they’re in the No Man’s Land portion of the field. The kicking game isn’t reliable right now, and the offense has to be a blunt-force weapon. There is no other option.
It might not be immediately evident why that matters in a game like tonight, where JMU made a dozen or more critical mistakes. But the Dukes were also 1-for-3 on fourth down tonight, including a 4th and 3 on the Georgia Southern 18-yard line, where Cignetti elected to go for it rather than take the risk of a 35-yard field goal attempt. JMU failed to convert, and its lead remained 24-21 early in the third quarter.
Exactly five minutes later, Georgia Southern would tie the game. JMU never regained the lead.
Now, I’m going to question some playcalling here in a minute, so let me make sure I’ve been clear in this part – I think Cignetti’s 4th and 3 decision was the right call! Ditto for late in the first half, when JMU went for it on 4th and 4 rather than try a 48-yard field goal. Mathematically, it’s far better to attempt to sustain a 6-point possession in short-yardage situations than take a high-risk shot at a 3-point possession.
However, nothing energized Georgia Southern quite like turning JMU over on downs twice within four drives during the middle of the game. Nearly everything else that happened after halftime took place in the shadow of those key stops.
JMU Got Way Too Cute With Its Passing Game
One thing I’ve learned as a journalist is that it’s always hard to second-guess stuff like playcalling because there are so many things we don’t know in the external environment. We don’t know what matchup-specific points of emphasis the coaching staff had. We don’t know how functionally healthy the running back room is. We only know what happens inside the perimeter of our television screen.
For example, some eagle-eyed viewers spotted Kaelon Black dressed and on the sidelines but not in the game. What’s the deal there?
In my experience, this is an example of a player who is hypothetically available, but only in reserve because of a previous injury.
In this instance, my supposition happened to be right – Black broke his finger two weeks ago at the beginning of the Texas State game and is close to being fully healed. He was available in the event of a total emergency situation; otherwise, the staff wanted him to heal up, with an assumed return date of November 6 at Louisville.
Often times, there’s just so much we don’t know from the outside.
So I offer that large brick of salt before suggesting this: JMU probably got too cute with its passing game. The run game was dominating Georgia Southern at the line of scrimmage, going for more than five yards a pop, on average. From my perspective, it didn’t make sense to pass the ball as much as it did.
It was immediately clear that JMU wanted to challenge Georgia Southern vertically. JMU quarterback Todd Centeio threw a number of go balls down the sidelines and put the game in the hands of the Dukes’ top-flight receivers. Sometimes, they made awesome catches; sometimes, Georgia Southern’s defensive backs made great plays, or the ball was a touch too long or too short.
“We knew based on their tendencies that they were going to snug up on us,” Cignetti said after the loss. “And we would have a good opportunity to throw it over their heads.”
And so they did, with mixed success. JMU ran the ball 40 times and passed it 48. That’s a bit out of whack with its season-long preference, which is to run the ball about 60 percent of the time.
Take a Bow, Kyle Vantrease
One week after throwing four picks in a loss at Georgia State, Kyle Vantrease shattered the program record for passing offense with a preposterous 578 yards through the air.
There is some bemusing irony in giving up nearly 600 passing yards to a team that’s historically most known for its triple option. Regardless, Vantrease played the game of his career on Saturday, dicing up a JMU secondary that hadn’t yet been truly tested on this scale so far this season.
Georgia Southern head coach Clay Helton made several smart decisions in this game, and one of them was abandoning the parts of his offense that weren’t working in order to focus on the ones that were. Georgia Southern’s run game had absolutely no chance against the JMU defensive front, so Vantrease and the offense stuck to screens, slants and quick intermediate passes. JMU seemed to have no working answer.
By the end of the game, Georgia Southern had run more than 80 plays on offense, which was significantly more than any other offense that JMU has faced this year. The JMU defense couldn’t consistently get off the field on third down, which led to a degrading pass rush and an exhausted secondary.
From a broader perspective: This is the second straight week that JMU played against a quarterback who made a number of incredible throws. I’ll put some of that on the JMU secondary, which was exposed by Clay Helton’s offense. But I think the chief reason is just that Vantrease and A-State’s James Blackman are both really talented, and JMU fans (and defensive backs) just aren’t used to seeing playmakers of that caliber on a weekly basis.
Last Week’s Sun Belt Power Rankings: Where Was Georgia Southern?
Like, really poor. All the way around. All four quarters, but especially in the second half.
Nowhere was it worse than on 4th and 10, with 2:28 to play, when JMU’s secondary appeared to make contact with Georgia Southern’s receiver behind the line to gain, but a lack of form tackling surrendered another four or five yards. A couple of players later, Georgia Southern scored the game-winning touchdown.
This film review session will be bad for a whole lot of reasons, but the tackling will be among the worst.
“At times, we looked really slow,” Cignetti mused after the game. “And they looked really fast.”
The 62-Second Drill at Game’s End Featured Too Many Mid-Field Passes
Despite everything I’ve already listed – the tackling, the playcalling, the porous defense, the special teams flaws – JMU still had the ball with a chance to force overtime or win the game. They had 62 seconds to go 62 yards.
The Dukes had zero timeouts, which meant they needed to rely heavily on out patterns to manage the clock. Yet as Centeio operated the 62-second offense, he repeatedly went back to the middle of the field for completions.
As a result, JMU went only 24 yards in the first 38 seconds, which forced Centeio and the offense into a more aggressive posture with time running out.
I’m not sure what happened on 3rd and 2, when Centeio threw the game-ending interception. I didn’t see a JMU player anywhere in the area, which may have meant someone ran the wrong route in the end-game scramble. (And while we’re talking about interceptions, let’s also point out that the previous pick wasn’t his fault, either.)
The turnover isn’t on Centeio, but the final-minute clock management might have been – depending on the direction he got from the coaching staff.
The JMU Run Defense Is Still Filthy Good
A loss to Georgia Southern will obviously knock JMU out of the AP Top 25. It will take about 50% of the steam off the ongoing national “Holy S#$%, JMU” love story.
What it won’t do is stain JMU’s most elite unit, which is a run defense that continues to rank among the best in Division I football.
Georgia Southern had 12 rushing yards on 16 attempts. If you’re into silver linings, that’s a pretty shiny one.
Let’s All Agree Not to Mention The Terrible Kris Thornton Call
I understand the need for incontrovertible video evidence in a call-overturning scenario, but c’mon, man. What a brutally bad call out of a review. That was clearly, clearly a catch.
That said, let’s all agree not to blame that call, or even the referees in general, for this loss. JMU had ample opportunity to win this game – including after it took the lead with less than three minutes to go. It outgained Georgia Southern by more than 100 yards but was -3 in turnover margin.
Sometimes, a bad call is just a bad call.
Next Weekend’s Marshall Game Is Still Going To Be Epic
Breaking news: JMU lost a football game in October.
The Dukes are FBS. It’s going to happen again. Probably even again this season.
Let’s spend the next 24 hours commiserating over a rough loss… then dump this L in the past, where it belongs. JMU hosts Marshall next Saturday for a homecoming game that should be absolutely bonkers. The Dukes haven’t played a proper home game (with non-hurricane weather) since a Week 2 win over Norfolk State – far before any of us really understood the true FBS neighborhood that JMU lives in.
Next week is a homecoming in more than one sense of the word. It’s the first-ever chance for a sellout crowd to support the Dukes not just as a card-carrying FBS team, but as a legitimate Sun Belt power.
Sounds like a pretty good time.