After eight months of waiting, Neal Brown football will finally make its debut at Milan Puskar Stadium.
The 35th leader of the Mountaineers will lead West Virginia against James Madison Saturday at 2 p.m. in his first game as head coach. But earning his first victory as the head coach of a Power 5 program might not be a simple task.
James Madison enters the 2019 season as the No. 2 team in the FCS, returning 20 of its starters from 9-4 playoff team a season ago.
Traditionally, WVU has been perfect against FCS opponents — 19 contests, 19 wins — but Brown acknowledged this week that the Dukes are unlike most of those previous foes. But while a veteran team might ease up against a lower-class opponent, Brown predicted that the Mountaineers won’t overlook the Dukes because the players have too much to prove.
“If we had an experienced team, I would be much more worried about opening up against an FCS opponent. We’re young. According to some of the NFL stuff, they have more NFL prospects than we do,” Brown said. “I don’t think we have to worry one bit about our guys overlooking anybody or not respecting their game, because all they’ve got to do is turn on the film.”
While WVU has often rolled past FCS teams — most recently drubbing Youngstown State by 35 points last season in week two — it has also struggled while maintaining that unbeaten record. In 2013, the Mountaineers had to claw back from a double-digit deficit to beat William & Mary 24-17 in their home opener. (For what it’s worth, that game also took place on Aug. 31, but was a noon kick.)
On paper, that William and Mary team is nothing like the JMU team that will roll into Morgantown Saturday: the Dukes are a legitimate contender for a national title in the FCS.
JMU looks strong on defense again this season. Last year, the Dukes allowed just 104 rushing yards per game and surrendered just 15 points per contest. They only gave up 20 total touchdowns all year, shutting out three opponents.
They also gave a scare to an FBS opponent: the Dukes battled N.C. State in a 24-13 loss in their opener last year.
James Madison also has a new head coach in Curt Cignetti, a WVU alumnus and the son of Frank Cignetti Sr., a former Mountaineer football head coach. He thinks the veteran nature of this JMU team is its biggest strength.
“That’s why I’m confident that we’re gonna go in there very confident and compete,” Cignetti said.
Other intriguing matchups include:
The Quarterback battle
Aside from Brown’s debut with the Mountaineers, the biggest story for WVU is Austin Kendall. The graduate transfer from Oklahoma will make his first appearance in gold-and-blue, and he admitted this week that this could be the first time since high school that he starts and finishes a game at quarterback.
Kendall’s appearances as a Sooner were limited, but he did pass for more than 2,600 yards as a senior at Cuthbertson High School in North Carolina.
The Dukes also feature a transfer quarterback in redshirt senior Ben DiNucci. The former Pitt Panther passed for 2,275 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, while also throwing 12 interceptions.
DiNucci also threw a season-high five picks in a playoff loss to Colgate.
The success of Kendall’s first outing as a Mountaineer quarterback could depend on the success of the offensive line in front of him.
The Mountaineers will roll out some veterans in that unit — namely redshirt senior Colton McKivitz, a preseason all-conference honoree — but some question marks still remain. For one, redshirt junior Josh Sills has moved to center, leaving an opening at right guard to be filled by either redshirt junior Chase Behrndt or sophomore John Hughes. Redshirt junior Mike Brown will also make his first start at left guard.
That unit will be tested right away by the Dukes’ defensive line, which collectively recorded 36 sacks and 93 tackles for loss last season.
One of their biggest producers of negative plays, Ron’Dell Carter, is back for his final season. He recorded 13 TFLs and 7.5 sacks a year ago.
A critical but often overlooked phase of this game could sway things Saturday.
The Dukes were explosive on special teams last season. D’Angelo Amos took three punts back for touchdowns, and Jawon Hamiliton returned a kickoff 93 yards for a score.
Transfer punter Josh Growden likely won’t make things easy on JMU return men, but the Mountaineers can’t fall asleep on special teams.
How to watch:
This game kicks off at 2 p.m on AT&T SportsNet. Join the West Virginia Illustrated team for three hours of pregame coverage in the lead-up to kick.