By Brett Strelow | Application State Athletics
BOONE, North Carolina — A ranked opponent with ring significance following the return of ESPN College GameDay at James Madison.
The challenge and the stakes are clear for App State, which has a three-game winning streak and hopes still alive of reaching the Sun Belt Championship Game with it to Harrisonburg, Va., to face undefeated and 18th-ranked JMU .
After the foursome’s GameDay wraps up in front of Wilson Hall at noon, a sold-out Bridgeforth Stadium will host a Sun Belt matchup between the Dukes (10-0, 6-0) and the Mountaineers (6-4, 4-2) at 2 p.m. . on ESPN+. To stay in contention for an East Division berth in the title game on Dec. 2, App State must beat a JMU squad that, backed by a dynamic quarterback and defense, is ineligible to play on Dec. 2 as it finishes the year 2 since its transition from the FCS to the FBS.
College GameDay made its Boone debut last year after the Mountaineers beat Texas A&M and an unforgettable Saturday in the High Country ended with a Hail Mary victory against eventual league champion Troy. A week later, the Mountaineers committed two turnovers deep in JMU territory to build a 28-3 lead before the Dukes rallied to win 32-28 in their first Sun Belt game.
JMU is 18-3 since the start of last season with coach Curt Cignetti leading a transition that, like App State, has been very successful.
“We’ve got a great opportunity this week, and the last three weeks we’ve really been winning those games,” the App State head coach Sean Clark said. “Any time you can go on the road and play a nationally ranked team, it’s huge. You add College GameDay to it, it’s a sellout crowd, and we’re used to playing to sellout crowds here at The Rock. I know our kids have blocked out all the noise and we’re very focused. … When you’re chasing a conference title, you’ve got to be focused.”
With its high-powered offense, App State is averaging 34.8 points per game, aided by an average of 273.0 yards through the air from the quarterback Joey Aguilar, and JMU ranked No. 1 nationally allowing just 61.6 rushing yards per game a year after ranking No. 2 behind only Georgia in that category. The Mountaineers were limited to 63 rushing yards on 34 attempts last season, with four sacks contributing to that total.
National sacks leader Jaylen Green (15.5 through nine games) suffered a season-ending injury in the Nov. 14 win at Georgia State — a 42-14 score that matched App State’s overall victory last weekend in Atlanta — but The Dukes were dominant on defense again in a 44-6 win against UConn without Green.
“They’re coached very well,” Clark said. “Coach Cignetti does a very good job with his schemes both offensively and defensively and they have great players. Their defense reminds me of Iowa’s defense when I was in the Big Ten. They’re simplistic in some ways with the way they play up top, but they do it so well and they do the same thing over and over and over without making mistakes.”
Five different App State receivers have had one game with at least 93 yards plus a touchdown this season, so Aguilar spreads the ball around and Nate Noel showed some of his early-season burst with a 61-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of Georgia State’s win. The Mountaineers’ offensive line protected Aguilar well and paved the way for a season-high 254 yards rushing.
“I’ve said this all along and I stand by that statement: We have a very good football team,” Clark said. “The ball didn’t bounce to us at the beginning of the season, and now we’re playing better and getting a few more breaks. The more you play, the better you get.”
App State’s defense put together two straight stellar games, holding Marshall to 252 yards in a 31-9 rout and Georgia State to 260 yards in a 42-14 win. Each of those teams had mobile dual-threat linebackers, just like the Dukes, but JMU has one of the nation’s most prolific pass rushers in Jordan McCloud.
Todd Centeio was the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year as a JMU freshman last season, having previously played at Temple and Colorado State. McCloud, who previously played at USF and Arizona, arrived in Harrisonburg before this season and has 26 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions — numbers that match Aguilar’s.
“He can throw the deep ball, throw the intermediate pass, throw it hash to hash,” Clark said. “When you cover and don’t account for the quarterback, he can pull it and run. He plays within the system and plays at a very high level.”
Averaging 280.0 passes per game, McCloud was 28-of-36 for 307 yards and four touchdowns at Georgia State before completing 33-of-37 passes for 457 yards and four touchdowns against UConn. He has two extremely productive receivers in 6-foot-2, 207-pound Elijah Sarat (60 catches, 841 yards, four touchdowns) and 6-foot-1, 195-pound Reggie Brown (45 catches, 903 yards, eight the touchdown).
On the ground, McCloud rushed for six touchdowns to complement the work of running backs Kaelon Black (53.1 yards per game) and TySean Lawson (45.8 yards per game).
App State has made significant improvement since relying more on a five-back “Star” package, highlighted by strong showings against Marshall (108 rushing yards on 25 attempts) and Georgia State (139 rushing yards on 47 attempts).
Acting in a hybrid defender/paramedic role, EJ Jackson has made 25 stops during the team’s three-game winning streak while at inside linebacker Andrew Parker Jr benefited from strong defensive line play up front from shots Santana Hopper and Montez Kelly to post two games in the last three weeks with over 13 tackles.
“Our kids on defense are playing with confidence right now,” Clark said. “We kind of changed our scheme in the Southern Miss game and it was a little shaky the first three quarters, but the fourth quarter they settled down, and the last two games these guys are playing fast.”
The Mountaineers have forced punts in five of the last seven games, including each of the last two games, as Marshall and Georgia State went scoreless in the first quarter. That’s important on both ends against a fast-starting JMU team, especially considering App State hit to end its five-game hitting streak.
“We’ll have work to do, but we’re excited for the challenge,” Clark said.