Virginia defense prepares for 2 QBs, but key is stopping JMU’s running game

By Jerry Ratcliffe

JMU’s Kaelon Black rushed for a game-high 125 yards last week against Bucknell. (Photo: JMU Athletics)

While JMU and Virginia will both be preparing to face two quarterbacks in this Saturday’s meeting at Scott Stadium (noon, ESPNU), Cavaliers coach Tony Elliott won’t have to play as much of a guessing game.

James Madison University coach Curt Cignetti has already named his starter for the game, a fairly experienced Jordan McCloud, who relieved Dukes starter Alonza Barnett III in last week’s lopsided, season-opening win over Bucknell. Cignetti’s defense will be preparing for both senior QB Tony Muskett and true freshman Anthony Colandrea.

Muskett started UVA’s 49-13 loss against No. 12 Tennessee last weekend, but was injured early in the fourth quarter. He didn’t return to the game and is listed as a day-by-day, “game-time decision,” by Elliott, who has Colandrea prepared to step into the starting role if necessary.

Cignetti said that while the Dukes will gameplan for both Virginia quarterbacks, they are more similar than different. That’s not quite the case with JMU’s two QBs according to Elliott, who said, “[JMU] is a little bit different depending upon the quarterback. When they had 14 (Barnett) in there, it was a little bit different offense than when they had No. 2 (McCloud) in there.”

In last week’s game, Barnett started and was replaced after struggling with the passing game, completing only 3 of 11 passes for 15 yards. McCloud came in midway through the third quarter and finished with 144 yards passing, including two touchdown throws on a 7-of-11 performance.

More on the JMU quarterbacks momentarily, but the Dukes have plenty of other firepower offensively and Elliott knows what UVA defensive coordinator John Rudzinski’s defense must do: stop the run.

“They like to run the football,” Elliott said of the Dukes. “They can establish the run. Their backs are really good and then that sets up their play-action.”

Elliott noted that JMU’s offense may differ from last season’s because of the new quarterbacks, but that the Dukes will still run a lot of zone-read, “RPO-type stuff,” and then take their shots down the field.

“So they’ve got playmakers,” the UVA coach said. “They’ve got some experience. They’ve got a very experienced offensive line. That’s what you notice when you watch them. I think there are seniors and juniors across the board that have played some football, and they’ve got good size, good length. They’re physical. Their backs know how to find the creases, and then when they get into open field, they’re hard to tackle.”

Kaelon Black was JMU’s leading rusher in the opener with 125 yards on 12 carries, but the Dukes picked up 261 of their total 436 yards of offense on the ground.

The biggest challenge for Virginia’s defense — coming off a decent performance against a superior, explosive offense at Tennessee — will be establishing control of the line of scrimmage. UVA has an experienced front seven and could have the services of defensive end Chico Bennett for this game. Bennett, the Cavaliers’ top pass-rusher last season with seven sacks, missed the opener while recuperating from a knee issue.

Elliott is familiar with JMU’s McCloud, after being on a Clemson staff that coached McCloud’s older brother, “Ray-Ray.” He has the utmost respect for the brothers and their family.

McCloud is an interesting story. The Tampa, Fla., native originally played at South Florida, where he started a game at No. 7 Notre Dame in 2020. He then transferred to Arizona and played two years, starting a game in 2021 at No. 3 Oregon.

However, this will be McCloud’s first start in 700 days, after missing most of the ‘21 season with a broken ankle (vs. UCLA), and not playing in a game last season for the Wildcats.

“[McCloud] has performed better in the scrimmages than he does in practice,” Cignetti said during a teleconference this week. “But he’s played a lot of football (19 career starts) and has quarterback instincts. He’s got a good head on his shoulders out there on the playing field.”

Cignetti said he hasn’t lost faith in Barnett.

“I don’t think what he put out on the game field Saturday night was indicative of what he’s capable of doing,” the JMU coach said. “Next time he’s in that situation, hopefully [with] this experience, he can make the adjustments he needs to make so he can play like we’ve all seen him play.”

Apparently Barnett had a stong training camp and won the starting job, even though Cignetti said in the preseason that it would be nice to have a starting quarterback with experience.

JMU is a 7-point favorite in the game, according to Vegas Insider.