In just days, the West Virginia Mountaineers open the book on the Neal Brown Era. On Saturday, August 31, the Mountaineers host the James Madison Dukes. Kickoff happens at 2:00. The game will be televised on AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh. For fans outside of that footprint, WVU Sports will stream the game live. And for those who can’t get enough Mountaineers’ coverage, we are previewing James Madison here.
Previewing James Madison
New Head Man
As with the Mountaineers, James Madison begins its 2019 season by unveiling a new coach about whom fans are excited. To Mountaineers fans, the Dukes’ coach, Curt Cignetti, feels familiar. In fact, Cignetti played college football for the Mountaineers between 1979 and 1982. Cignetti is the oldest son of former Mountaineer Head Coach Frank Cignetti, Sr. To say coaching runs in the family puts it mildly, too. The elder Cignetti coached for 45 years, and Curt’s younger brother, Frank (Jr.), currently coaches quarterbacks with the Green Bay Packers.
Cignetti replaces Mark Houston at the helm for the Dukes, and the loss of Houston cannot be understated. Houston brought the Dukes to two straight FCS National Championship appearances, winning one. Coincidentally, that was the Dukes’ first FCS championship since 2004. And the first meeting between the Dukes and the Mountaineers happened that same year. Helmed by fourth-year Head Coach Rich Rodriguez, the Mountaineers handled the Dukes easily, winning 45-10.
But Cignetti is more than capable to replace Houston. Cignetti most recently led the Elon Phoenix to two straight winning seasons (in his first two seasons there) and the first back-to-back FCS playoff appearances in Elon’s history. Before that, Cignetti led Indiana University of Pennsylvania to a 53-17 record in six years. And as an assistant coach for NC State and Alabama, Cignetti has coached the likes of Philip Rivers and Julio Jones.
Returning Talent and Big Expectations
The Dukes return nine starters on offense and ten on defense. But if you count defensive back Rashad Robinson, who returns from a foot injury to replace all-time Dukes’ great Jimmy Moreland, James Madison actually returns 11 former starters in this unit.
The offense returns signal-caller Ben DiNucci, who completed over 68 percent of his passes last season while throwing for 175 yards per game and 16 touchdowns. DiNucci transferred to James Madison from Pitt, and this is now his redshirt senior season. He returns most of his receiving production, and running back Percy Agyei-Obese appears primed to take over the majority of carries for the Dukes this season.
The Dukes also return all but one of their biggest playmakers on defense. That includes linebacker Dimitri Holloway, who tallied 127 tackles (with eleven for loss) last season. That also includes defensive lineman John Daka, who led the Dukes with ten sacks and also added 17 tackles for loss in 2018. As a unit, James Madison’s defense surrendered just under 15 points per game, good for sixth in the FCS.
Last season, the team finished 9-4, losing in the second round of the FCS playoffs. But after tasting the highest levels of success the two prior years, James Madison is hungry to return to the FCS Championship. They enter the season as the number two team in the FCS Coaches’ Poll. Even with those lofty preseason expectations, however, the Dukes are not without flaws. Last season, they turned the ball over 23 times, and the defense forced only 24 turnovers. The Dukes were also inconsistent in getting pressure on the quarterback, tallying only 26 sacks. That said, both units definitely produced, and those producers, by and large, return for 2019.
The Mountaineers answered a lot of questions about their depth chart over the last ten days. In particular, Coach Brown named Austin Kendall as the starting quarterback. While relatively inexperienced, Brown told the media that Kendall is mature and consistently made the best decisions of the Mountaineers’ talented quarterback room.
And just this last Friday, the NCAA granted sophomore receiver Sean Ryan‘s waiver request. Ryan, who was just outside of our top five offensive surprises list, will add big-play talent to the receiver position. T.J. Simmons, Sam James, and George Campbell should all hear their name called often as well. The Mountaineers also feature four game-breaking running backs. While the biggest question mark on offense remains the offensive line, the Mountaineers will march out two linemen named to the preseason Outland Trophy watchlist.
On defense, the Mountaineers flex strength and depth on its defensive line. To Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning, this will be important. Koenning frequently rotates at least two deep at each position on the defense. And Koenning is known for putting pressure in the backfield, as his defenses are no stranger to top ten rankings in tackles for loss and sacks. In fact, Koenning defenses are no stranger to top total defense rankings. In his last 16 seasons as defensive coordinator, his units finished in the top ten two times. They have finished in the top fifteen seven times. And, in total, his defenses finished in the top thirty in 75 percent of the seasons he’s acted as defensive coordinator.
This added pressure should help the Mountaineers overcome the offseason attrition in the secondary as newcomers like Dreshun Miller, Tavian Mayo, and Nicktroy Fortune look to take pressure off of veterans like Keith Washington, Joshua Norwood, Hakeem Bailey.
Previewing James Madison: The Prediction
The Mountaineers are 19-0 against FCS teams historically. They have faced James Madison twice, most recently in 2012, when the Mountaineers won 42-12. Brown is also 4-0 against FCS teams, including a 44-16 wins against sixth-ranked FCS team Charleston Southern in a year when Troy finished 4-8. Much has been written about James Madison being a superb FCS team returning abundant talent. But even with that talent and the question marks surrounding the Mountaineers’ transition into the Neal Brown era, we doubt the Dukes will pull out the upset in Morgantown. After a sluggish start, look for the Mountaineers to pull away 40-14.