James Madison can finally catch its breath.
The run of nine straight weeks without a bye is over. The Dukes, having won eight in a row after Saturday’s 27-10 thumping of Towson, are off for the first time in 2019 this coming weekend.
“These games get more important when you’re in a position like we are,” first-year JMU coach Curt Cignetti said Monday during the Colonial Athletic Association coaches teleconference.
Both the STATS FCS Top 25 and AFCA Coaches Poll rank the Dukes at No. 2 and the team is the lone unbeaten in Colonial Athletic Association action in spite of being the only squad in the league to play in each of the first nine weeks this season.
“Every game becomes more important,” Cignetti said. “Every play becomes more important and I was just really proud of the way our team went out and played. We played physical. We played fast. We took it to [Towson], and I thought we had a lot left in our tank at the end of the game.”
It’s only the second time this decade JMU played nine straight weeks without bye – the last was 2015 when the Dukes won seven consecutive contests to open the year before losing two in a row ahead of the off week.
Cignetti said he just tried to keep his players focused on the upcoming game that was on JMU’s schedule.
“We really didn’t talk about it as a team,” Cignetti said. “Every week you’re just focused in on that opponent. Now as a coach, you can kind of sense things and we had a stretch there, too, where four out of five games were on the road. Significant road trips, so I did detect a little fatigue within the team, but everyone knew what was at stake.”
Cignetti said the defense’s growth through the first nine weeks is most encouraging to him.
Senior defensive end Ron’Dell Carter is second in FCS for tackles for loss, senior defensive end John Daka ranks ninth nationally for sacks and senior safety Adam Smith is up to 20th in the country for interceptions per game.
“We’ve really stepped it up defensively in terms of the TFLs, the sacks,” Cignetti said, “getting the turnovers. Our turnover ratio is starting to come up and we’re playing dominant defense right now.
“Now, there’s still room for improvement, trust me. There’s always room for improvement. There are still plays where we lose eye discipline or somebody doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do, but I think that’s the one area right now, that I’ve seen a difference.”
Since CAA play started, the Dukes have 24 sacks over five conference games. In four non-conference games to begin the year, they managed just four sacks.
- Cignetti said a key play against the Tigers was the defense blowing up Towson’s attempted double-reverse pass in the first quarter. The coach said JMU called a blitz and it worked.
- One line Cignetti uses frequently with his players is: “play six seconds a play.” But the coach said in order to slow Towson quarterback Tom Flacco, JMU needed to “play hard for 12 seconds a play because of his ability to extend plays.”
- Offensively, JMU ranks third nationally for third-down conversion rate (53 percent) and Cignetti said it’s always a point of emphasis for his team because it keeps drives alive and keeps the defense off the field.