In the course of James Madison’s ascent to FCS powerhouse and FBS Sun Belt Conference candidacy, very rarely has a visiting team taken down the Dukes at Bridgeforth Stadium. Villanova, a threat to nab a high seed in this fall’s FCS playoffs, nipped JMU by a point earlier this season in Harrisonburg, VA.
To find another instance of JMU falling on its home turf requires looking back to 2018 when Curt Cignetti’s Elon Phoenix pulled the stunner. These days, Cignetti patrols the home sideline for the Dukes, who welcome to town on Saturday 4-3 Elon, winner of three in a row. Cignetti’s defensive coordinator at Elon, Tony Trisciani, is in his third season as Phoenix head coach.
“When I think about that trip up there, I think about just the attitude that we had as a football team,” Trisciani told HERO Sports of the 2018 upset. “Everybody that was on that bus and everybody that was in that locker room, every guy believed we were going up there to win the football game. We may have been 35- or 37-point underdogs, but nobody in that bus or locker room knew or cared.”
Elon hopes a similar focus will bode well as it once again attempts to vanquish No. 5 JMU, which is now playing amidst a barrage of Sun Belt realignment reports.
“Any of that outside noise, hopefully, it’s a distraction for them, but it’s certainly not for us,” Trisciani said.
The Phoenix has taken three consecutive CAA games to turn around a 1-3 overall start that included a 24-22 season-opening setback to Wofford and a one-point victory at Campbell.
“What’s changed the most from Week 1 to Week 8 is development,” Trisciani explained. “We’re more experienced now up front than [we were] to start the season. We have more freshmen playing on the offensive line and a junior center. We have had a consistent lineup now here for the last four or five weeks, which has helped. We lost our starting center in our game against Appalachian State. We lost a starting tackle in Game 2 at Campbell, but that group up front is getting better. There’s more chemistry there. When you have four freshmen, that’s what you want to see, you want to see them get better week-to-week.”
Even in playing behind an offensive line in progress, Elon quarterback Davis Cheek has been masterful in his return from an injury that kept him out of the spring season. Cheek, Stats Perform’s FCS National Offensive Player of the Week, leads the CAA with a whopping 304 passing yards per game. He is neighbors with Villanova’s Daniel Smith and JMU’s Cole Johnson in the pass efficiency leaderboard, clocking a 142.4 rating.
It’s not only Cheek’s physical traits that separate him, Trisciani emphasized.
“Davis has a lot of arm talent. He’s very accurate; he can throw the deep ball. But it’s the six inches between his ears, really, that make him special. The way he prepares and the decisions he can make and how quickly he can make them.”
The Phoenix will need Cheek’s best to match Johnson Saturday. Trisciani sees the Dukes’ quarterback coming into his own.
“[JMU has] the ability to be balanced on offense,” Trisciani started. “They can run it when they want to. They have receivers that can create separation. Now, they have a quarterback that is playing with more confidence.
“One thing that does jump out to me is the experience and confidence that Cole Johnson is playing with now. He’s making plays with his legs, too. He’s pulling the ball when he needs to. He’s effective running the ball and moving the sticks for them.”
Adding intrigue is the mentor-vs-mentee dynamic of Trisciani visiting Cignetti’s ballclub. In fact, it is a routine Trisciani is quite familiar with in the CAA, as the former New Hampshire and Villanova assistant coached against UNH last week and hosts Villanova following the upcoming JMU contest.
Said Trisciani of Cignetti, “I learned a lot of football from Curt. When I think about Curt, I think one thing I learned from him is that less is more. He is a really good, clear communicator. Standards, expectations, what the plan is for the entire organization, the staff, and the players alike. He’s a very good offensive coach, recruiter, and evaluator of talent. Wherever he goes, he brings a pedigree with his experience and having coached with Nick Saban and coming from Alabama.”
Coincidentally, Saban lost to a former-Saban-assistant-turned-opposing-head-coach for the first time when Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M knocked off Alabama earlier this season in SEC country.
Trisciani knows the challenge that one-loss James Madison will pose in his team’s effort to mimic that outcome against his former boss.
“Cole [Johnson] is becoming more experienced,” he reiterated. “JMU is always going to be big up front. They have a stable of running backs. They’re talented at receiver. I know they have had some younger guys have to step up on the offensive line, but they’re still talented. They’re still big, strong. Well-coached group.”