JMU football (12-0, 8-0 CAA) was victorious in the second round of postseason play this past Saturday, beating the Stony Brook Seawolves 26-7. The Dukes will now play host to the Weber State Wildcats (11-2, 7-1 Big Sky Conference) in a Friday night lights edition of college football. Wildcats head coach Jay Hill and his staff pulled off a brilliant upset this past week against No. 8 Southern Utah 30-13, following their opening-round victory over the Western Illinois Leathernecks, 21-19. The winner of this FCS quarterfinals contest will play in the semifinals on either Dec. 15 or 16.
1. Continuity for the Dukes
The Dukes played a tremendous game of football this past week, dominating in all aspects of the game. Despite being outgained by the Seawolves on offense 311-304, the Dukes managed to possess the ball longer than Stony Brook, convert on all four red-zone attempts and throw for more passing yards and touchdowns.
“The biggest thing for us on offense was being consistent,” head coach Mike Houston said. “We got off to a fast start last week and we’re going to have to try and get off fast again this week.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Dukes carried their regular-season success into the postseason. They kept the Seawolves out of the red zone, prevented third-down conversions on over 70 percent of attempts and forced five interceptions from junior quarterback Joe Carbone.
“We were all just on the same page,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Andrew Ankrah said. “We want to continue to ride out this wave that we’ve got going and get to a national championship.”
Momentum is everything in postseason play, so look for more of the same from the Dukes this week when they face the Wildcats.
2. Protect Schor
One area the Dukes hope to improve on this week is protecting senior quarterback Bryan Schor, who was sacked five times by the Seawolves’ defensive front on Saturday.
The Dukes have struggled at quarterback safety this season, allowing 2.33 sacks per game — which is 76th in the FCS. These woes carried into the postseason, as Stony Brook defensive linemen had their way with the Dukes’ offensive line and put a lot of pressure on Schor.
“Honestly it just comes down to handling your assignments,” redshirt senior offensive lineman Aaron Stinnie said. “You’ve got to be sound on your job and it’s a big piece of communication and honing in on your technique.”
This will be a tall task for the Dukes this week when they face a Wildcat defensive front that’s tallied 37 sacks throughout the season — an average of 2.85 sacks per game. They’re led by senior defensive lineman Cardon Malan’s 7.5 sacks on the year, with junior linebacker Legrand Toia (5.0) and sophomore defensive end Jonah Williams (4.5) following right behind.
“We’re facing one of the top defenses in the country,” Houston said. "They do a great job of showing a lot of different looks, being very active, playing very hard, so we’re going to have to do a good job of communicating our protections.”
The JMU offensive line will need to turn things around this week when it faces a lethal Wildcat pass rush.
3. Contain Cantwell
While the JMU offense will be protecting its senior quarterback, the Dukes’ defense will aim to contain Stefan Cantwell, the 25-year-old dual-threat quarterback from South Jordan, Utah.
Cantwell has been a monster for the Wildcats this season — throwing for 2,740 yards, 23 touchdowns and only six interceptions and picking up 550 rushing yards to go along with seven rushing touchdowns. He ranks 19th in the FCS in passing yardage, 17th in points responsible for per game, 10th in passing efficiency and eighth in points responsible this season.
“The big thing with him is he’s 6-foot-2, 220 pounds,” Houston said. “So if you hit him from the side or something like that, he’s not going to go down — you’re going to have to tackle this guy like a big running back.”
JMU will aim to put pressure on Weber State’s quarterback, keep him inside the pocket and force errant throws. While the Dukes have had success at getting to the quarterback all season — 3.58 sacks per game, which is fourth in the FCS — they were stood still by the Stony Brook offensive line last week and weren’t able to record a single sack.
For the Dukes to walk out Friday night with a win, they’ll need to limit the two-way capabilities of Cantwell and ensure they get consistent hits on him.
4. Prevent third-down conversions
Third-down conversions are a huge factor in any football game and you won’t find many teams better at converting those attempts than Weber State. The Wildcats have moved the chains for 44 percent of their third-down attempts, 14th best in the FCS.
“It comes down to preventing a manageable third down,” Houston said. “If they’re sitting there with third and 2 all day long, they’re probably going to do really well. If we have them down at third and 8 or third and 9, then I think our chances are a lot better.”
While the Wildcats are one of the best at these conversions, the Dukes are one of the best in the nation at preventing them — allowing only 29.9 percent of attempts, eighth best in the FCS.
“They’re definitely a good team offensively,” Ankrah said. “We just have to keep doing what we do and be us. That’s our motto, ‘be us,’ because we know what we can do if we’re all focused, doing our jobs and we’re all ready to go.
Solid play on first and second down will make a huge impact on third-down attempts, so look for the Dukes to make life difficult for the Wildcat offense and get it off the field after its third-down attempts.
Contact Blake Pace at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.