Home Armed Forces Bowl Preview: JMU Football, in Year 2 in FBS, is going bowling

Armed Forces Bowl Preview: JMU Football, in Year 2 in FBS, is going bowling

Scott Ratcliffe
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(© Steve Heap – shutterstock)

What seemed improbable to many just a few weeks ago will become reality on Saturday, as the JMU Football program — in just its second season at the FBS level — is going bowling.

After a few twists and turns, the Dukes will go up against Air Force tomorrow afternoon (3:30 p.m., ABC) in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas. The Dukes (11-1, 7-1 Sun Belt), who are ranked 24th in the AP poll and 25th in the coaches poll, are a 2-point favorite to beat the Falcons, with an over-under of 40.5.

JMU reeled off 10 victories in a row to start the season, and racked up eight wins against bowl teams when all was said and done. The Dukes’ lone loss came in overtime on Nov. 18 at home against another bowl team, Appalachian State, on the game’s last play, 26-23.

The memorable season actually wasn’t supposed to be still going, but with a couple of lucky breaks, the Dukes will be putting on their bowling shoes after all.

Any school making the transition from the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly Division I-AA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) faces the ramifications of not being eligible for postseason play for the first two seasons in the FBS, this being the second for JMU. Waivers were submitted and denied, and it appeared as if the Dukes would have to sit out the postseason once more.

The rules also state that any such school is ineligible for its conference championship, so the Dukes already knew they couldn’t compete for the Sun Belt trophy at season’s end, despite sitting atop the division standings all season long.

However, since there weren’t enough schools that qualified for a bowl game nationally in the traditional sense, it left the door open for the Dukes to be considered, and when a couple of teams lost in the final week of the regular season, it officially stamped JMU’s ticket for selection.

If that wasn’t enough of a storyline, just before Dukes fans learned that their bowl aspirations would be coming true, Curt Cignetti announced that he had been lured away by Indiana University to become their new head coach.

“Always tough to lose a head coach when things are going well,” JMU director of athletics Jeff Bourne said. “When people want your coach, you’re doing the right thing, and you’re winning, right? So how do you follow up from that? You go out and you hire an excellent coach and we did that. We got Bob Chesney.”

Chesney, who’s regarded as an up-and-coming coach, spent the last six seasons at Holy Cross, a solid FCS program in Massachusetts. He was named the ninth coach in JMU history earlier this month. He played defensive back at Dickinson College from 1996-99, and owns a career head-coaching record of 111-46 (44-21 at Holy Cross).

“I promise to give this team every single thing I’ve got, every single day that I am here, each and every day,” Chesney said in his welcome speech. “The future begins now… Go Dukes.”

Chesney had previously led the Crusaders to five-straight first-place finishes in the Patriot League, and the 46-year old is ready to help keep JMU’s unprecedented positive momentum rolling.

“He already rocks purple,” JMU school president Jonathan Alger said at Chesney’s introductory press conference in Harrisonburg, referring to the two institutions’ common school color. Alger described the hire as “an exciting new era for JMU football.”

It probably wouldn’t get much more exciting than leading your new team into its first-ever bowl experience in your debut, but that’s not the scenario Chesney will be inheriting. Damian Wroblewski, who served as offensive line coach and associate head coach for offense this season under Cignetti, will be the acting head coach for Saturday’s game.

“Every member of our football program is honored and excited to represent JMU in its first ever bowl game,” said Wroblewski. “We understand the unusual circumstances that we are in, and that only makes us smile even more.

“From Coach Challace McMillin recruiting young men in registration lines to begin the program over 50 years ago to today, we say thank you and will make JMU Nation proud. We now have a destination. It’s time to hone our focus on the process of preparation and daily excellence. We’ll see you in Fort Worth.”

Wroblewski will have the luxury of eight players who entered their name in the transfer portal deciding to stick around and suit up for Saturday’s big game before looking for a new future college home, although two key players did decide to opt out — DE Mikail Kamara, the team’s third-leading tackler, is joining Cignetti and the Hoosiers, while OL Carter Miller is heading to Sun Belt rival Louisiana Monroe.

Star quarterback Jordan McCloud, whose name is also in the portal and will be a hot commodity nationally, has thrown for 3,400 yards and 32 touchdowns this season, while also rushing for 311 yards and a team-high 8 touchdowns.

Kaelon Black (814 all-purpose yards) and Ty Son Lawton (742 all-purpose yards) provide an effective one-two punch out of the backfield, while receivers Elijah Sarratt (1,076 receiving yards, 8 touchdowns) and Reggie Brown (1,010 yards and 9 scores) lead the talented receiving corps. JMU jumped on its prey early and often in 2023, outscoring opponents 92-20 in the first quarter and 206-84 in the first half.

Defensively, the Dukes registered the country’s best numbers against the run, limiting opponents to just 61.5 yards per game on the ground. The unit can also get to the opposing quarterback, with All-American DE Jalen Green (15.5 sacks) and Jamree Kromah (11.0) accounting for the majority of the team’s 45.0 sacks. Aiden Fisher leads the team with 91 tackles (39 solo).

On the flip side, the Falcons (8-4) run the triple-option, doing the majority of their damage on the ground without much at all through the air. For reference, Air Force averages 275.8 yards per game on the ground and only 88.3 via the pass.

Coach Troy Calhoun’s squad is back in the Armed Forces Bowl for a second-straight year. The Falcons began the 2023 season with eight-straight wins and were ranked as high as No. 19, but have since dropped their last four contests (Army, Hawaii, UNLV and Boise State).

AFA senior quarterback Zac Larrier has only thrown the ball 62 times all season (37 completions) for 744 and 6 touchdowns, while toting the mail 133 times for 579 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Senior fullback Emmanuel Michael leads the team in rushing with 747 yards and 9 touchdowns, as he and Larrier are two of the five different players with at least 400 yards rushing on the season.

The Falcons’ top receiver, Jared Roznos, has recorded 11 catches all year for 332 yards and a pair of scores.

With a minus-4 turnover ratio, Air Force wishes to limit its mistakes and penalties, avoid turnovers and keep the contest within reach against the menacing defense and explosive offense of JMU, which will no doubt be looking to make its first splash on the bowl scene.

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe has worked as a freelance writer for several publications over the past decade-plus, with a concentration on local and college sports. He is also a writer and editor for his father’s website, JerryRatcliffe.com, dedicated to the coverage of University of Virginia athletics.