Arkansas State to host the Dukes in a first-time Sun Belt matchup
A French musician named Claude Laurent once presented President James Madison with one of his custom-made crystal flutes, in honor of Madison’s second inauguration. Though Laurent was known for his intricate, handcrafted glass flutes, Madison’s is only one of two crystal flutes the Frenchman is known to have ever made.
The Red Wolves are coming for the magic flute. We want it bad. Having finally tasted an FBS-level victory last week, Arkansas State is no longer content with playing the Sad Trombone of Defeat.
We Admit The Dukes are Good
Howlraiser ranked James Madison dead last in its preseason Sun Belt preview – not necessarily because we believed the Dukes to be bad, but because there were so many unknowns attached to the program. Did the Dukes have FBS speed and size? Did it have the depth to compete in a brutal, 12-game schedule against better resourced competition? Was head coach Curt Cignetti even a real guy?
“Yes” is the answer to all these questions, though Coach Cignetti might be a cyborg sent from the future to destroy the psyche of the Sun Belt elite. Regardless, the Dukes boast the nation’s number one defense, the 30th-best offense (scoring an SBC best 44.8 ppg), and a dual-threat super quarterback in Todd Centeio. Opponents aren’t even scoring 14 points per game on James Madison, who opened the season by absolutely demolishing Middle Tennessee 44-7.
So yeah, all right, the Dukes are pretty good. Whatevs.
Yeah, But the Red Wolves are Getting Better
The difference between last season’s Red Wolves and this season’s Red Wolves is about 20-pounds of antacids. The defense, for example, is no longer a fart-producing horror show, ranking a decent 60th nationally (instead of dead last). While the offense is no longer the fast-paced score-machine it was in recent seasons (it ranks 78th nationally), quarterback James Blackman has thrown a single pick in five games, has completed 69.7% of his passes, and his 149.0 QB rating is 5th best in the Sun Belt. Most encouraging, the run game is no longer the worst in the Sun Belt (that distinction belongs to Old Dominion).
Underrated but vastly important is Arkansas State’s development on special teams. Place kicker Dominic Zvada is one of seventeen FBS place kickers with a perfect field goal percentage, and Johnnie Lang Jr. is nitroglycerin returning kicks and punts.
The Red Wolves have the potential to beat you in many ways, as evidenced by the well-balanced victory over ULM in Week 5. It will be difficult to defeat the Dukes with potential.
Who are the Dukes of James Madison?
We already mention quarterback Todd Centeio, the Colorado State transfer that currently leads the Dukes in passing (918 yards, 11 TDs) and rushing (279 yards, 2 TDs). His favorite target? 5’8″ senior Kris Thorton, who has five touchdowns. The Red Wolves always seem to have problems with mobile quarterbacks, so look for Centeio to have a big evening.
The JMU ground game has produced the second most yards in the Sun Belt. Versus Texas State, redshirt junior Latrele Palmer ran for 106 yards and three short-yardage touchdowns, and it just feels like a matter of time before senior running back Percy Agyei-Obese starts taking over games.
Defensively 6’0″, 267-pound freshman defensive lineman Mikail Kamara leads the Dukes with three sacks, and sophomore linebacker Jalin Walker has collected 22 total tackles and a pair of picks. Those guys are good, but the bottomline for the JMU defense is you can’t run on the JMU – the unit surrenders the nation’s stingiest 46 yards per game (and only 3 touchdowns.)
Do the Dukes Have a Weakness?
No! I guess if you want a sliver of negativity to which to cling, James Madison isn’t especially dangerous in the Red Zone and are only slightly above average for converting on third down. But honestly, the Dukes don’t have a glaring dent in their armor. (Sorry.)
How Can the Red Wolves Win?
If you can’t run on the Dukes, the Red Wolves will need to throw, and that means all hands must be on deck – including the cotton-soft paws of Champ Flemmings, who played sparingly in the win against ULM. Having the team’s speedy lead receiver back in Blackman’s arsenal would take an incredible amount of pressure off, well, everybody in the huddle.
In addition, veteran wide receiver Te’Vailance Hunt continues to provide a reliable outlet for Blackman, but what the team really needs is more consistency from Jeff Foreman, who followed up a 100-yard performance against ODU with a one-catch outing against ULM.
While the Red Wolves defense continues to strengthen, it will need to play its best game yet on Saturday, with linebackers Jordan Caramouche and Jaden Harris tasked to keeping Centeio’s feet in check. However, Thurman Geathers and a healthy Kivon Bennett must apply relentless menace to keep that offensive out of rhythm. Because once it gets going, it’s time to go home.
The Analysis That Is Final
According to my FunBelt Podcast colleague Shane Mettlen, the Dukes didn’t even play good football in their route of Texas State, which is an unnerving thing to say. True, the Dukes were a bit careless with the football on a rainy day in Harrisonburg, but conditions should be perfect in Jonesboro, where James Madison will make its longest road trip to date this season.
The Dukes are good – possibly the second-best team the Red Wolves will face in 2022. Arkansas State, with its home field advantage, is a vastly improved team riding a winner’s high. Do they have enough in the toolbox to crush the magic from the Dukes’ magic flute?
That’s a tough tune to play.
GRAPHIC CREDIT: I did that so blame me
NOTE: an early version of this post contained erroneous information regarding the JMU run game. The responsible party has been death punched in the junk.