WAYNE EPPS JR Richmond Times-Dispatch
After James Madison’s practice earlier this week, right tackle Nick Kidwell put a succinct but effective timeline of what’s ahead for the Ducks: “Now it’s real.”
“Competition is intensifying,” he added.
And JMU throws itself into the furnace on Saturday when the program plays its first Sun Belt game on the road against one of the most popular teams in the league at the start of a wild conference campaign thus far: Appalachian State.
While the Dukes are not yet eligible for a Sun Belt title this year, in their first season in the FBS, Saturday will be the first major indicator of how quickly they can become serious players. in his new league.
App State (2-1, 1-0 Sun Belt) is coming off a thrilling Hail Mary win over Troy as time expired, while rested JMU (2-0) advances to next week. The teams battle it out Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at a sold-out Kidd Brewer Stadium (ESPN+).
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“It’s big,” Kidwell said of Saturday. “Send a message to the entire conference. And show that we really can.”
It seems fitting that JMU begins its first year of Sun Belt play against a program that became a rival of sorts when both were at the FCS level. The Dukes and Mountaineers haven’t played since a big game in 2008 in Harrisonburg, when App State, which has won three straight national titles and is ranked No. 1 in the country, was beaten 35-32 by fifth-ranked JMU.
But the schools have met 16 times in total, with the Mountaineers leading the series 12-4.
In 2014, App State moved from FCS to FBS in the Sun Belt. And now JMU, winner of a pair of FCS national titles (2004, 2016), has done the same eight years later.
“The foundation, the building blocks of every program are similar,” JMU coach Curt Cignetti said.
App State has enjoyed consistent success since entering the Sun Belt, never worse than 6-2 in a single season. That’s the kind of reputation JMU would like to build in the Sun Belt as well.
JMU already made something of an FBS statement in its season opener on Sept. 3, defeating Middle Tennessee 44-7 before beating FCS Norfolk State 63-7 on Sept. 10.
Meanwhile, App State’s wild 2022 so far has included a 40-point fourth quarter in a 63-61 loss to North Carolina on Sept. 3 and a 17-14 upset win at No. 6 Texas A&M on Sept. 10 and the Hail Mary triumph over Troy last Saturday.
Members of the JMU program who were absent last weekend watched the Troy game live. Ukwu felt it gave him a feel for the pace of the Mountaineers’ offense, led by Chase Brees, whose nine passing touchdowns are tied for 11th in the nation.
“Sometimes when you’re watching film, it’s really hard to tell the cadence and pace… It’s like they like to work outside the zone,” Ukwu said. “So to feel how fast they move with some of these movements.”
Kidwell said the offensive team watched the Troy game together. And, for that unit, last week’s bye week was useful to get reps against the Dukes’ scout team in preparation for App State’s surprising defensive front, with three defensive linemen — a basic 3-4 configuration.
Middle Tennessee and Norfolk State posted 4-3 looks.
“I feel like last week was a great time to get used to a new defensive front that we haven’t seen this year. … I feel like we got a pretty decent lead,” Kidwell said
The Mountaineers’ defense has committed six fumbles and recovered three this year, ranking 27th in the nation.
Saturday’s App State-JMU matchup is coming with anticipation. Reserved seats for the game sold out more than two weeks ago, and the Mountaineers have designated Saturday as their annual Black Saturday game, one of the highlights of their schedule.
Ukwu said he likes playing in the road environment the Dukes will find themselves in Saturday. This setting at 30,000-seat Kidd Brewer Stadium will be JMU’s first true training ground in its inaugural FBS season.
“Now we’re here,” Kidwell said, “and now we just have to go play football.”