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West Virginia Mountaineers vs James Madison Dukes - Season 127, Episode 1 - Welcome Home Real Deal Neal

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The Neal Brown era finally kicks off as the Mountaineers play host to FCS powerhouse James Madison

WHEN/WHERE

Date: Saturday, August 31st

Time: 2:00pm EST

Venue: Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, WV

HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN

TV: AT&T SportsNet

Radio: Find the best place to listen HERE

Streaming: WVUsports.com

DEGENERATES UNITE

Spread: WVU -7 (according to Oddshark)

Over/Under: 52.5

James Madison is no joke, but I'd like to think that this line will serve as a motivator for the P5 school opening at home against the FCS school.

#TREADWATCH

West Virginia: Blue helmets, Blue jerseys, Gold pants

Welp. Neal got his first big decision right. The classic home colors look as fantastic as ever with the redesign, and choosing to rock them for the home opener will score big points with just about everybody after Dana Holgorsen's odd aversion to the combo. Just a perfect way to start the new era.

James Madison: The Dukes have yet to announce what they're wearing, but they have a number of clean away looks that should contrast nicely with our full-colored get up.

KNOW THE ENEMY

Series History: 2-0. The Mountaineers have cruised in both previous meetings, including a 42-12 win at FedEx Field in 2012.

2018 Record: 9-4. The Dukes had a mostly up and occasionally down 2018 campaign. The high point was arguably a hard-fought season opening loss against NC State in Raleigh, while the low point was a confusing 35-24 defeat at the hands of 3-6 New Hampshire.

Head Coach: Curt Cignetti. Cignetti makes his JMU debut against his alma mater after spending his previous two years at Elon. He's spent 36 years coaching at the college level after graduating from WVU, including a four year stint on Nick Saban's first staff at Alabama from 2007-2010.

Offensive Coordinator: Shane Montgomery. Montgomery is in his first year at JMU but sports over 25 years of experience coaching at the college level. He spent last year at Charlotte, but was previously part of Youngstown State's national championship run in 2016.

Defensive Coordinator: Corey Hetherman. Hetherman is also in his first year in Harrisonburg but has produced very good defenses at his previous stops. Most recently his 2018 Maine Black Bears led all of FCS by allowing just 79 yards rushing per game while ranking 2nd nationally with 47 sacks.

BY THE NUMBERS

As usual, this section will be built out more starting next week. Some numbers of note in the meantime:

- The Dukes outscored their opponents by an average of 33.9-14.6 last year.

- They were very much a run-first in 2018 with a run/pass split of 57/43. I wouldn't expect that to change much under Curt Cignetti and OC Shane Montgomery, whose Elon Phoenix and Charlotte 49ers were an even more lopsided 64/36 and 63/37 run/pass respectively in 2018.

- Those first two points lead me to conclude that JMU does not play from behind very often. Their experience means they likely won't panic, but I still think it would be huge boost for us if we can jump out to an early lead and get them out of their comfort zone.

WHEN WE HAVE THE BALL...

WVU players to watch: QB Austin Kendall, LT Colton McKivitz, RB Kennedy McKoy, RB Martell Pettaway, WR TJ Simmons, WR Sam James, WR Sean Ryan

JMU players to watch: DE Ron'Dell Carter, DE John Daka, LB Dimitri Holloway, CB Rashad Robinson, S D'Angelo Amos, S Adam Smith

James Madison's defense is without question the strength of a strong all-around football team. The Dukes return almost all of their starters and key rotation guys from a unit that was one of the best in the FCS last year based on most traditional metrics. They ranked Top 10 nationally in both scoring and total defense and were Top 25 in 11 statistical categories overall, and now they add a defensive coordinator in Corey Hetherman who engineered the best defense in the FCS at creating negative plays last year.

Up front the Dukes are small but are as good as there is in the FCS across all four positions, led by preseason All-American defensive ends Ron'Dell Carter (7.5 sacks in 2018) and John Daka (10.0) and anchored by Mike Greene and Adeeb Atariwa in the middle. At linebacker, leading tackler Dimitri Holloway is another preseason All-American in the middle and will again be flanked by Virginia transfer Landon Word and Ohio State transfer Wayne Davis. An important note here is these three backers only combined for 3.5 sacks last year while Maine's three starters racked up an impressive 21.5. Conclusion - they're going to blitz a whole lot more under the new DC than they have in years past.

The secondary features unanimous preseason All-American Rashad Robinson at corner and the similarly recognized safety tandem of Adam Smith and D'Angelo Amos, who finished 2nd and 3rd on the team in tackles last year, respectively. The lone weakness is the lack of size across the front seven, but you can see that overall the unit is loaded with experience and some of the best defensive talent that the FCS has to offer. Should be an interesting test for our guys as we try to find our identity.

Matchup to watch: WVU receivers vs JMU secondary

West Virginia will undoubtedly be looking to run the football against the Dukes' undersized defensive front, and the Dukes will probably be expecting us to try and run it on them, but if the offense is going to have any kind of success this year we're going to need Austin Kendall and the receivers to make some plays to dissuade teams from stacking the box against us. That starts this week against an experienced JMU secondary. Now that Kendall has won the starting job I fully expect Neal Brown to trust him with the entire playbook, which will most definitely include shots down the field to guys like Sam James and the recently eligible Sean Ryan. Hitting a few of those explosive plays early would be massive for us in multiple ways - first, as I mentioned above, the run-heavy Dukes are not used to playing from behind; second, it'll soften up that defense and leave them vulnerable to being worn down with the run in the second half; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, repaying his coach’s trust will do wonders for Austin Kendall’s confidence, and that's something that could pay huge dividends for our team going forward. If we're able to get behind the Dukes once or twice early, I expect our depth will allow us to cruise to a victory.

WHEN THEY HAVE THE BALL...

WVU players to watch: DT Dante Stills, Bandit Quondarius Qualls, LB Josh Chandler, Spear JoVanni Stewart, FS Josh Norwood

JMU players to watch: QB Ben DiNucci, RB Percy Agyei-Obese, RB Jawon Hamilton, WR Kyndel Dean, TE Dylan Stapleton

The Dukes return at least 15 starters and key contributors from a unit that was effective if not overly explosive in 2018, averaging 406.9 yards per game (47th in FCS), 5.9 yards per play (37th), and 33.9 points per game (18th). The keys are once again in the hands of Pitt transfer Ben DiNucci, who we were unfortunately never properly acquainted with at his previous institution.

DiNucci has a pretty strong arm and completed an efficient 68% of his passes a year ago for 2275 yards and 16 touchdowns (though that completion number is somewhat less impressive once you consider the paltry 7.3 yards per attempt), but he also does good work as a runner. He carried the ball 107 times for 629 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2018, and a lot of what they did offensively last year was built around the zone read and the threat of him running the ball. You have to think we'll see more of the same this year even with a new OC calling the plays.

As for the rest of their skill guys, they graduated their top three rushers from a year ago, but the two guys they do bring back, Agyei-Obese and Hamilton, were effective enough when they got the ball that we shouldn't expect much if any dropoff in production, especially with a mostly intact offensive line. One positive for us is the suspension of 2018's leading receiver Riley Stapleton, though they do have a few other guys who made their share of plays out there last year. Receivers Kyndel Dean and Jake Brown should be expected to take steps forward with a year of game experience under their belts, as should Stapleton's brother Dylan at tight end. Brandon Polk will also be counted on to shoulder some of the load with Stapleton out, but hopefully the Penn State transfer waits until later in the year to bear any fruit.

Matchup to watch: WVU front 6 vs JMU offensive line

As I mentioned above, the Dukes are generally a run-first team even with a full deck, so it stands to reason that they'll be even more dependent on it with the absence of their best playmaker on the outside. In my opinion, that means the key matchup for us is in the box. If we can mostly control their zone read game with our front six, it'll neutralize a foundational part of their offensive game plan and force DiNucci to beat us with his arm. Those receivers have shown potential, but most of the damage they do in the passing game comes as a result of their success on the ground, and man for man I think that Washington, Bailey, and Norwood are more than good enough to handle them.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Dukes return a kicker who made 17 out of 19 field goals in 2018, their top kick returner, an All-American punt returner, and an Australian punter who's on the preseason FCS punter of the year watch list, so I think we can safely assume that we're seeing nothing less than rock solid special teams play from them this week. That would've terrified me over the last decade given the previous administration's gift for losing in the margins, but Neal Brown's Troy teams had pretty much the exact opposite reputation. I actually can't wait to see if his attention to detail is already paying dividends with regards to the way we handle ourselves in the third phase.

CLOSING ARGUMENT/PREDICTION

Despite Mountaineer Nation's collective excitement for the Neal Brown era oscillating somewhere between fever pitch and pure euphoria, my group texts have had a decidedly nervous tone as we approach the season opener. And look, I get it - I watched the same spring game as everybody else, and James Madison is one of the last FCS teams that you'd ever want to play before even considering that they return basically everybody. They'll absolutely be walking into our house ready to dump all kinds of rain on our parade.

However, let's be real here - this is still a team that lost to Colgate, Elon, and New Hampshire last year. I've seen some folks making a big deal about JMU having 7 FBS transfers on their team without realizing that what they're really saying is that JMU has ***checks notes, shuffles papers*** 7 total FBS players on their team. We have 85 on scholarship alone, and though they obviously won't all play, the fact of the matter is that the Dukes don't have more than 10 guys on their roster who'd see any kind of meaningful playing time for us, and conversely there are probably only 4 or 5 spots on theirs that our guys wouldn't walk into and immediately start. They are a very good FCS team that's done a very good job developing players, and there's a lot to be said for the level of experience that they have, but the overall talent disparity across the two-deep is substantial. Also, tomorrow is sold out. 60000+ expected. We might have to sweat it out, but there ain't no way Mountaineer Nation is letting some FCS dudes walk in here spoil RDN's debut. See y'all in the Blue Lot.

West Virginia 38 - 24 James Madison