After James Madison held Norfolk State to just nine rushing yards, head coach Curt Cignetti wasn’t sure if the defense had been challenged yet by a good running team.
But Cignetti and the Dukes will find out if they can rise to the challenge at Appalachian State on Saturday, as the Mountaineers hold the fourth-best rushing attack in the Sun Belt Conference so far this season.
“App State has always been able to run the ball well,” Cignetti said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “Inside, outside zone, some other things that they do. It’ll be a good test for us, it’ll be a good test for them.”
JMU boasts the best run defense in the country, allowing just 21 yards a game on the ground. The Dukes haven’t allowed a run for more than nine yards, while the most one ball carrier has rushed for is just 15 yards.
Middle Tennessee’s Frank Peasant logged the most attempts of any rusher against JMU’s defense, but logged just three yards on nine attempts, losing 14 yards in the process.
That stout defensive play is something that has been a headache for App State head coach Shawn Clark.
“I think they’re giving up 10 yards a game in rushing and that’s leading the country,” Clark said. “That keeps you awake at night time.”
The Dukes might be keeping Clark up at night, but App State’s offensive line is where it starts for JMU to try to limit the Mountaineers' running backs.
Cignetti said it all starts with the offensive linemen and the tight ends, which he gave credit to.
“Those are the guys doing the heavy lifting and they’re really good at what they do,” Cignetti said. “They play a lot of different tight ends, a lot of different personnel groupings and formationally do a nice job.”
Redshirt senior defensive lineman Isaac Ukwu said that App State isn’t a finesse team up front on the offensive line, rather they get after the opposing team’s defense.
Ukwu added that it’s imperative for the Dukes to win the line of scrimmage battle since other teams that have had success against the Mountaineers have made it difficult on the offensive line.
“If you really watch film, the teams that give them the most issues is when the defensive line is really getting after it,” Ukwu said. “I feel like that’s something we’ve got to try to hone in on and take really personally this week.”
Winning the line battle is just one part of what JMU’s run defense has to take care of against App State. The Dukes are also focused on keeping the defense’s structure in order during Saturday’s game.
App State’s offensive style can get a defense out of sorts and Ukwu said JMU has to keep its shape defensively.
“When a team is running that fast on outside zones, it creates little holes in the defense if you don’t fill your gaps correctly,” Ukwu said. “And if you don’t set the edge well and make running backs cut up, they can really just gash you for a lot of yards on one misfit by a linebacker, one misfit by a lineman or safety.”
On top of penetrating the App State offensive line and keeping assignments defensively, the Dukes will face a diverse group of running backs carrying the ball.
App State is led by redshirt junior Camerun Peoples, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound back that’s rushed for 255 yards on 49 attempts this season, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. After Peoples, it’s redshirt senior Daetrich Harrington, who’s averaging 5.8 yards per attempt.
The Mountaineers have been without sophomore Nate Noel for the past two games, but he rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns in App State’s season opener against North Carolina.
JMU’s defense prides itself on holding the opposing rusher to under three yards per attempt and the key to keeping that against App State, who average 4.8 yards per attempt, will be tackling.
But even then, it still comes back to winning the line of scrimmage on defense.
“We’ve got to tackle well, but we’ve got to win the battle up front,” Cignetti said. “You got to win the 1-on-1 battles. Every guy’s got to do his job. You can’t have a guy in the wrong gap or whatever we call on defense. … That’s when you give up big plays.”