Neal Brown and the West Virginia Mountaineers are set to take the field for the first time together Saturday afternoon against the James Madison Dukes. At first glance, the Mountaineers of the Big 12 would appear to be heavy favorites to begin the Brown era on a winning note. However, JMU is an FCS power, currently ranked No. 2 in Athlon's Preseason Power Poll.
The Dukes, who knocked off a ranked Virginia Tech squad in 2010 and also beat SMU and East Carolina this decade, return 20 starters from a squad that finished 9-4 last season following a second-round exit in the FCS playoffs. In other words, this new-look West Virginia squad could be in for a tough test — especially with so many new faces in Morgantown.
James Madison at West Virginia
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31, at 2 p.m.
TV: AT&T SportsNet, WVUSports.com/Mountaineer TV
Spread: West Virginia -7
When James Madison Has the Ball
Senior quarterback Ben DiNucci threw for 2,275 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first season with the Dukes. DiNucci, a Pitt transfer, also added 433 rushing yards and led the squad with nine rushing touchdowns. Though DiNucci will be without top target Riley Stapleton for the first three games in 2019, he’ll likely rely heavily on Penn State transfer Brandon Polk and Freshman All-American Kyndel Dean in the passing game.
West Virginia has to replace eight starters from a defense that ranked No. 106 against the pass (259 ypg) in 2018. Nevertheless, with the return of corners Josh Norwood and Hakeem Bailey, safety Keith Washington and Spear JoVanni Stewart, the secondary should be a strength of the unit. The defensive line could be the deepest position for the Mountaineers defensively, led by Reese Donahue.
Linebacker is the biggest question, especially following the departure of leading tackler David Long to the NFL, as well as the recent announcement of a four-game suspension for Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan. Cowan, a sophomore, was projected to start at the new pass-rushing Bandit position in Vic Koenning’s defense. Expect Quondarius Qualls to step in in Cowan’s absence.
When West Virginia Has the Ball
All eyes will be on quarterback Austin Kendall, the graduate transfer from Oklahoma who'll be making his first start for the Mountaineers. Kendall gave eventual Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray a run for the starting gig in 2018 but took the opportunity to connect with Brown after Jalen Hurts joined the Sooners earlier this year.
In eight career games, Kendall has completed 28-of-39 passes (71.8 percent) for 265 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. He won’t have the benefit of an experienced receiving corps following the departure of last year’s top four pass catchers, but the Mountaineers expect big things from juniors T.J. Simmons and Tevin Bush. Transfers Sean Ryan (Temple) and George Campbell (Florida State) are also in the mix for playing time.
We should expect Brown to lean heavily on running back Kennedy McKoy, who returns following an 802-yard, eight-touchdown junior campaign, and a solid offensive line led by 35-game starter Colton McKivitz at tackle and All-Big 12 performer Josh Sills, who recently moved to center.
The player to watch for JMU is senior cornerback Rashad Robinson, an FCS preseason All-American and potential NFL draft pick, who was one of 25 players included on the preseason Buck Buchanan Award (top defensive player in FCS) watch list despite missing all of 2018 due to a medical redshirt. Robinson earned All-America honors in 2017 and has 10 career interceptions. Linebacker Dimitri Holloway, defensive linemen Ron’dell Carter and John Daka and safety Adam Smith are also all-conference caliber players.
New JMU head coach Curt Cignetti, hired to replace new East Carolina head coach Mike Houston, is a familiar name to West Virginia fans. The son of former WVU head coach Frank Cignetti, Curt played for both his father and Hall of Famer Don Nehlen with the Mountaineers. He was also an assistant at Alabama under West Virginia native Nick Saban before becoming a head coach. Following successful runs at IUP (Division II) and Elon (FCS), Cignetti took over a James Madison program expected to compete for a national championship.
A single-digit point spread might be seen as a lack of respect for West Virginia, but instead shows how dangerous James Madison should be. The Mountaineers have a talent advantage, but with so many new faces on both sides of the ball and on the sidelines, a win by any amount — and the first for Brown at WVU — would be worth celebrating.
Prediction: West Virginia 27, James Madison 21
(Top photo courtesy of wvusports.com)