Everything You Need To Know: Louisville Vs. James Madison

Spread: Louisville -7, O/U 52.5 (Bovada)

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET

TV / Radio: ESPNU / 93.9 The Ville

Last Time: 

This is the first ever meeting between James Madison and Louisville. Louisville holds a 32-32-1 all-time record against teams currently in the Sun Belt Conference, having last played Arkansas State and Marshall in 2010 and 2016, respectively (though Marshall at the time was a Conference USA member).

Entering the Game: James Madison

After spending the better part of two-plus decades as one of the premier programs in the FCS, James Madison became the newest member of the FBS in 2022. The Dukes came up to the Sun Belt Conference after winning ten conference titles in the Colonial Athletic Association, and two national titles in 2004 and 2016.

Head coach Curt Cignetti enters his fourth season as head coach, with a 38-7 record at James Madison entering Saturday night (105-33 overall). JMU comes into Cardinal Stadium with a 5-2 record, with wins over Middle Tennessee State, Appalachian State, and Arkansas State on their resume. James Madison also entered the AP Top 25 earlier this season, just five games into their FBS tenure.

James Madison Offense: What to Watch

How James Madison’s offense will look on Saturday night depends on if quarterback Todd Centeio suits up for them. Centeio missed the Marshall game two weeks ago with an oblique injury, and it was not pretty for JMU. The Dukes mustered just 247 total yards, had five turnovers (including four interceptions), and went 0-for-17 on third down.

When Centeio is in the game, however, the Dukes are an efficient outfit on offense. James Madison averaged 519.7 yards per game & 6.6 yards per play with Centeio starting the first six games of the season. He has taken a dramatic leap in play from last season at Colorado State, upping his completion rate by four percent (60.3% in 2021, to 64% in 2022) and throwing 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions (had a 15:10 TD-to-INT ratio in 2021). He’s an accurate quarterback that can execute the offense very well, and also a capable runner from the pocket when he gets out. Though he’d be returning from injury, he’s thrown for 862 yards in his last two games, so he is coming in very hot.

JMU isn’t short on talent at the skill positions, but it all starts with wide receiver Kris Thornton. He’s averaging six catches and nearly 100 yards per game, and almost has twice as many catches and yards as the next leading receiver. You’ll likely see him line up in the slot to create mismatches across the middle, and chances are he will get his share of touches. Reggie Brown (22 rec., 346 yards, three TDs) and Terrance Greene Jr. (15 rec., 280 yards, two TDs) are decent options outside.

The Dukes rushing attack is a committee effort by Centeio, Percy Agyei-Obese (556 yards, 6.04 YPC, four TDs) and Latrele Palmer (301 yards, 3.86 YPC, four TDs). James Madison does use a lot of different looks with their running game to keep defenses off balance (especially their use of the read option and run-pass options), and it’s why they are ranked 31st nationally in rushing yards per game (194 YPG).

Players to Watch: QB Todd Centeio (64% completion, 17 TDs, four INTs); WR Kris Thornton (41 rec., 689 yards, five TDs)

James Madison Defense: What to Watch

James Madison’s defense has been superb in their inaugural season in the FBS, ranked second in the Sun Belt Conference in total defense (294 YPG) and tenth nationally. They currently lead the nation in rushing defense (55.6 YPG), but are just coming off their worst outing against Marshall, where the Herd rushed for 167 yards and 3.8 yards per carry. Still a respectable number in the grand scheme of things, but against Louisville’s rushing attack, that could be important.

Linebacker Taurus Jones has been a stud this season, leading the team in both tackles and TFLs. He’s the key cog in JMU’s defense, and he can pretty much do everything at least solidly, but he is an ace as a run stopper. I’d say he’ll be the guy tasked with trying to keep Cunningham locked down in the pocket. Linebacker Jailin Walker has also been really solid in both phases, he’ll be a star for the Dukes in the coming years. Defensive lineman Isaac Ukwu (6.5 TFLs, five sacks, three PBUs) has been solid off the edge, will be interesting to see how he fares against Louisville’s rotation of offensive tackles.

James Madison’s pass defense hasn’t been as strong, ranking 81st in passing yards allowed per game (238.4 YPG) on 7.2 yards per attempt. Freshman cornerback Chauncey Logan has been disruptive in his first season with JMU, he’s got potential to be a big time star in the coming years if he can continue his progression.

Players to Watch: LB Taurus Jones (59 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, two forced fumbles, three PBUs); LB Jailin Walker (42 tackles, two INTs, sack); CB Chauncey Logan (eight PBUs)

Keys to the Game:

  • Louisville must prevent James Madison from opening the vertical game

A lot of focus is going to go towards Louisville’s pass rush being able to disrupt the JMU passing game, and for good reason. The Cardinals averaged five sacks per game in the month of October, and that played a huge part in them finishing +13 in the turnover margin during that same span (for context, Louisville was -2 in the margin entering October).

However, I want to take a different direction and focus on Louisville’s ability to defend the deep ball. Yes, that can largely depend on how well Louisville’s pass rush can keep Centeio off rhythm, but Louisville’s also done a good job at keeping the big play from killing their momentum. In Louisville’s five wins, they are allowing just 4.4 yards per play. In losses, that number jumps to 7.2. James Madison is a capable team with stretching the field (41st nationally in yards per play, 6.2 YPP), especially with Thornton and Brown as the top two receivers. Louisville will need to mix up their defenses like they did last time to keep James Madison from getting into a groove offensively.

  • Can Louisville establish the run against James Madison?

Okay, maybe asking Louisville to establish the run against the top ranked rushing defense in the FBS is a little absurd to suggest at first. But Louisville can be encouraged by what Marshall was able to accomplish on the ground. As mentioned, JMU did allow their season high in rushing at Marshall two weeks ago, a team led by a RB who is already over 1,000 yards on the season.

Louisville’s own rushing attack should be an interesting matchup, because it’s similar to JMU’s in terms of personnel. Malik Cunningham and Louisville’s army of running backs could pose some challenges against the Dukes front seven, but Louisville will have to use their size and carve out lanes. I think this is a game they can use Malik’s legs to their advantage and be able to break off long plays.

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