For the first time in more than a year, the James Madison Dukes will take the field when they host the Morehead State Eagles on Saturday afternoon to kick off their spring season.
Ranked fourth in Athlon Sports' Top 25 entering this unique spring season after the fall campaign was canceled by the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, JMU is eager to get back to the FCS playoffs after falling to North Dakota State in the national championship game last January.
The defending CAA Football champion Dukes return just seven starters, but second-year head coach Curt Cignetti still has plenty of talent on his roster. Meanwhile, Morehead State went 5-7 in 2019, and the Kentucky school hasn't posted a winning record since '15 (7-4). The Eagles are a member of the Pioneer Football League and are scheduled to play seven games this spring.
JMU has won 17 straight home openers at Bridgeforth Stadium and 16 in a row overall against non-conference opponents. This will be the 10th meeting between these two schools, with the Dukes winning the last four, all at home. The most recent matchup occurred in 2016, which JMU won 80-7.
Morehead State at James Madison
When: Sat., Feb. 20 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBC Sports Washington Plus (regional)/FloFootball (online)
Spread: James Madison -41.5
When Morehead State Has the Ball
Head coach Rob Tenyer's offense leaned more towards the pass than the run in 2019, and quarterback Mark Pappas returns to lead the Eagles' attack. The junior threw for 2,327 yards and 19 touchdowns in his last campaign.
Pappas will need some new targets to emerge following the departures of Landon Hurst and Jordan Huffman, who were responsible for 11 of the team's 23 touchdown catches. Slot receiver Ian Holder returns as the leading pass catcher after posting 34 receptions for 398 yards with two scores in 2019.
When Morehead State runs the ball, Issiah Aguero figures to see most of the carries. The senior ran for 958 yards and seven touchdowns last season while averaging nearly six yards per carry. Earl Stoudemire (4.4 ypc, 3 TDs) could see some touches as well. The offensive line, which helped the team average 4.2 yards per carry overall and gave up 21 sacks last season, returns three starters.
After finishing the 2019 campaign first in FCS in yards and third in points allowed per game, James Madison's defense will look different with just three returning starters for the spring, but that doesn't mean the results won't be similar. The Dukes have built a reputation as one of the subdivision's stronger defenses and have All-America candidate Mike Greene (7.5 sacks, 11 tackles for a loss) back to anchor the front.
JMU was especially stingy against the run (74.8 ypg, third) last season but also made a living creating turnovers, including 17 interceptions. That trend could continue with North Carolina transfer Greg Ross joining returning starters Wayne Davis and Wesley McCormick in the secondary.
When James Madison Has the Ball
The Dukes return just four starters on offense and how far this team ends up going could come down to the play of new starting quarterback Cole Johnson. A senior, Johnson has seen a fair amount of action while at JMU, but he's made just one start in 22 career games. With 2019 CAA Football Offensive Player of the Year Ben DiNucci now in the NFL, the keys to the offense have been handed over to Johnson.
Fortunately for Johnson, he has plenty of options to hand the ball off to, starting with Percy Agyei-Obese. The senior led the team with 1,216 rushing yards and finished fifth in FCS with 19 rushing touchdowns. He'll be joined by fellow backs Jawon Hamilton, Latrele Palmer, and Solomon Vanhorse, as the Dukes should have one of the more productive backfields in the subdivision. Another benefit to Johnson is working behind an offensive line that returns three starters, including All-America right tackle Liam Fornadel.
The running game will probably carry more of the load at least early on as Johnson and the revamped passing game settle in. JMU's top four receivers have all moved on, so new targets will need to emerge. One of those could be Duke transfer Scott Bracey, who has returned to his home state (he's from Richmond) after playing in 32 games in three seasons for the Blue Devils.
James Madison will defend its CAA Football title with a bunch of new faces in key positions, including quarterback. But the Dukes also have established themselves as a consistent contender due to their ability to reload rather than rebuild. Does this mean JMU will make another deep playoff run this spring? Time will tell, but the retooled Dukes should have little trouble at home against a Morehead State team that hasn't had a winning record since 2015.