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James Madison coach Curt Cignetti isn’t sure what to expect from Morgan State when the Dukes and Bears tangle Saturday at JMU’s Bridgeforth Stadium.
Former Michigan running back Tyrone Wheatley is in his first season as Morgan State’s head coach; the Bears weren’t allowed to hold spring practice because of NCAA sanctions related to academics; and Morgan State had a bye last week and has played only one game this season.
“The challenge is more in terms of preparation,” Cignetti said. “Who are they going to be? What are they going to be? Is it going to be more like when they played Towson and Albany last year, where it was a lot of house blitz, press coverage? They played those teams fairly well. ... It is sort of the unknown and, you know, usually when you’re in a situation like that you kind of go back to what are the things we do well and let’s execute those.”
The Dukes are a 37-point favorite over the Bears at some Las Vegas sportsbooks, but it’s worth noting that Morgan State upset fourth-ranked North Carolina A&T 16-13 last season. That loss ended NC A&T’s 15-game winning streak.
Morgan State (0-1) opened its season with a 46-3 loss at Bowling Green. The Bears, who returned 17 starters from a team that finished 4-7 overall (3-4 MEAC) in 2018, were held to 70 yards in that loss — 46 rushing and 24 passing — and allowed 620 yards.
“They didn’t have spring football, so they’ve had limited practice,” Cignetti said. “They went into the opener, and now they’ve had two weeks to kind of assess where they are as a team. They have a new quarterback [Dion Golatt] on offense. Defensively when you look at them last year there were some games where they blitzed almost on every play, and a lot of it is high-risk blitz where they’re just playing straight man with no deep help.”
Golatt, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound redshirt sophomore, completed 3 of 9 passes for 24 yards and was sacked three times against Bowling Green.
JMU (1-1, 0-0 CAA) is coming off last week’s 44-7 victory over Saint Francis. The Dukes limited Saint Francis to 69 yards of offense through the first three quarters of that contest, and scored the game’s first 37 points. The Saint Francis offense had 10 consecutive three-and-outs at one point in the game and failed to convert on 12 of 14 third-down opportunities.
“It was a good team win,” Cignetti said. “We got to play a lot of guys, but we have a lot to clean up.”
JMU’s Solomon Vanhorse, a redshirt freshman running back, was named the Colonial Athletic Association’s Rookie of the Week after he rushed for a game-high 86 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries — all of which came in the first half — during the victory over Saint Francis. Through two games Vanhorse has rushed for 141 yards and three touchdowns on 26 attempts.
“He’s not a real big guy, but he packs a punch,” Cignetti said. “He’s got excellent speed, quickness and vision, and [has] a real feel for the game.”
JMU remained the No. 2 team in both the STATS FCS Top 25 Poll and the AFCA FCS Coaches’ Poll this week. The rest of the top five remained the same as well: No. 1 North Dakota State, No. 3 South Dakota State, No. 4 Eastern Washington, and No. 5 UC Davis.
In addition to JMU, five other CAA teams are ranked in the STATS FCS Poll: Maine is No. 7, Towson is No. 8, Delaware is No. 18, Villanova is No. 22, and Elon is No. 25. Stony Brook also received votes in the poll.
On The Receiving End
Through two games, senior Brandon Polk leads JMU in receptions (10) and receiving yards (161). He caught a career-high six passes for a career-high 95 yards in the victory over Saint Francis.
“He’s had two productive games in a row and he’s a smart guy,” Cignetti said. “He’s got a feel for the game. He’s got really good speed and he’s been catching the ball really well. Of course we’re a little short-handed out there right now without Riley Stapleton (three-game suspension) for one more game, so he’s stepped up. His contributions have been huge. … You can use him in a lot of different ways.”
Saturday’s game will be the second meeting between JMU and Morgan State. The Dukes won 76-7 in 1995. JMU has a 6-2 all-time record against MEAC opponents.
Wheatley, who spent two seasons as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ running backs coach before accepting the Morgan State job, was the 17th overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft (New York Giants). He rushed for 4,962 yards and 40 touchdowns in his 10-year NFL career. In addition to four years with the Giants, he spent six seasons with the Oakland Raiders.
JMU leads the CAA in kickoff-return average (29.0 yards).
Cignetti said his team needs to perform better in the red zone. The Dukes have scored on 10 of their 11 trips to the red zone this season, but five of those scores were field goals.
Tyrone Wheatley Jr., the head coach’s son, is a tight end on the Morgan State roster. He’s a graduate transfer from Stony Brook.
Morgan State was picked to finish eighth in the MEAC Preseason Poll.
After Saturday’s contest, JMU will play its next three games on the road at Chattanooga (Sept. 21), at Elon (Sept. 28), and at Stony Brook (Oct. 5).