For the first time this fall, redshirt senior defensive lineman Isaac Ukwu might flip on a Netflix show — the go-to was “Law and Order SVU” or “Criminal Minds” last season — or listen to rap artist Rod Wave as James Madison’s bus travels down I-81 south on Friday.
The shows and music are a staple for Ukwu on road trips, especially since he’d rather sleep on the way home instead of on the way to the game.
It may be a similar away game routine for Ukwu each time he gets on a bus or plane, but this week’s method might feel a little bit different than the others.
The Upper Marlboro, Md., native and the rest of the Dukes set to play their first Sun Belt Conference game at Appalachian State on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
JMU’s SBC debut will take place in front of a sold-out crowd at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, N.C..
With the Dukes making the trip to App State for the first time since 2007, Ukwu said he can’t wait to play in front of the hostile crowd.
“It definitely gives you motivation when you’re playing in front of someone else’s crowd and you know that they’re going against you,” Ukwu said. “It gives you a different level of motivation to just silence them and go after them.”
The Dukes haven’t entered an away environment since losing to North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals in December, so this weekend’s game will test JMU on its poise, head coach Curt Cignetti said.
Cignetti added that the team can’t get caught up in the crowd or emotions of the game, but he did say the team will have to use its own emotions to its advantage.
“In some respects, you got to create your own energy through a positive performance,” Cignetti said. “It will be a tremendous challenge. Our kids are really excited. Everybody’s excited for this challenge. It’s going to be a good measuring stick for us.”
App State is fresh off hosting ESPN College GameDay and a game-winning Hail Mary over Troy this past Saturday before it hosts JMU. A week before that, the Mountaineers beat then-No. 6 Texas A&M on the road.
The Mountaineers’ early success has turned them into the darling of the Sun Belt early in the season and Cignetti isn’t surprised to see them finding success at this point of the year.
“There’s a reason they win the championship almost every single year,” Cignetti said. “They’ve got a great brand, they have tradition, they got a culture. Their kids play hard. They’re tough. They’ve got great players. They’re extremely well-coached.”
App State is led by former Clemson and Duke quarterback Chase Brice, who threw for nine touchdowns through the first three games and engineered the Mountaineers’ 40-point fourth quarter against North Carolina.
Cignetti was quick to point out Brice’s large stature — 6-foot-3, 235 pounds — but also his ability to make plays.
“[He] can really sling it, can make all the throws,” Cignetti said. “Got good mobility, too. You just can’t let him run out of the pocket.”
Outside of Brice, App State’s offense goes through its running game, which is powered by Camerun Peoples, a bruising back.
Peoples has run for 255 yards and a touchdown this season, averaging 5.2 yards per attempt on the ground.
Defensively, the Mountaineers aren’t a slouch. Just a week after giving up 63 points to North Carolina, App State allowed Texas A&M to score just 14 points and the Aggies didn’t have much time on the opponent’s side of the 50-yard line.
“They held A&M to 14 points, really shut them down well,” Cignetti said. “They rose to the occasion in the second half when they really needed to against Troy. They’ve got a couple guys that can really come off the edge.”
Those edge players, Sun Belt leading sack artist Nick Hampton and Jalen McLeod, were also mentioned by redshirt junior offensive lineman Nick Kidwell.
JMU’s offensive line will be tested, but Kidwell was confident if the Dukes can contain App State’s pass rush, they will be able to pull out the upset victory in Boone.
“We know that if we do our job, it’s going to give everyone around us opportunities to make big plays,” Kidwell said. “If we take control, we’re going to win the game.”