App State hits stride in time for unbeaten James Madison

The Mountaineers, winners of three straight, travel to face the 18th-ranked Dukes

Appalachian State quarterback Joey Aguilar has thrown for 875 yards while completing 70.3% of his passes for 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions during the Mountaineers’ three-game winning streak. (Jason Allen / AP Photo)

After a rocky first half of the season, Appalachian State has reeled off three consecutive wins and clinched bowl eligibility. The Mountaineers’ next challenge? A visit to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to face undefeated James Madison.

ESPN’s “College GameDay” will make an appearance on JMU’s campus as the No. 18 Dukes (10-0, 6-0 Sun Belt) host the Mountaineers (6-4, 4-2 Sun Belt) in Saturday’s conference showdown at 2 p.m.

It’s a chance for a surging App State squad to take its best shot at the top team in the Sun Belt.

The Mountaineers rolled over Georgia State last weekend in a balanced 42-14 road win. Quarterback Joey Aguilar passed for three touchdowns, App State running backs had three scores, and six different Mountaineers scored touchdowns as the team improved to 10-0 all time against GSU.

“We still have a lot to clean up, but our players are playing at a high level right now and we’re eager to keep digging and keep chipping away because we have a lot to play for,” App State coach Shawn Clark said at his weekly Monday press conference. “We look forward to the challenge of competing against James Madison this weekend on a national stage.”

With the 34th-ranked offense and 26th-ranked defense in the country, the Dukes present a difficult test for a Mountaineers team that likes to run the ball — JMU’s rush defense ranks first in the country at only 61.6 rushing yards allowed per game.

At the same time, App State’s 14th-ranked offense has been on a roll and averaged more than 40 points per game over the past three weeks. The one-two punch of running backs Nate Noel — recovered from a midseason ankle injury — and redshirt freshman Kanye Roberts has solidified the Mountaineers’ running game.

Aguilar, meanwhile, has gotten better as the season has gone on, assisted by a receiving corps led by juniors Kaedin Robinson and Christan Horn.

On defense, inside linebacker Andrew Parker Jr. and safety Nick Ross have anchored a group that has struggled at times to stay off the field but improved in November, holding Marshall and GSU to a combined 21 points the past two weeks.

On Monday, Clark spoke highly of the JMU team built by fifth-year coach Curt Cignetti, a former NC State assistant under Chuck Amato who later made an in-conference jump from Elon to the Dukes when JMU played at the FCS level in the Colonial Athletic Conference. Cignetti has since helped JMU make the leap to FBS and the Sun Belt, and Clark cited the dual-threat ability of quarterback Jordan McCloud, the playmaking skills of wide receiver Reggie Brown and running back Kaelon Black, and the Dukes’ stout defense as reasons for the team’s success.

“With their coverages, they’re in the right spot at the right time and there’s not many holes in their defense. We cannot even identify them right now,” Clark said. “And then with their offense, it starts at the quarterback. He can do it all — he can run, he can throw and get the ball out of his hands quickly.

“They have three or four great receivers, and their offensive line is playing well. You have to have a great running back, and that’s why they’re undefeated right now and ranking 18th in the AP poll and they get all the credit.”

McCloud has thrown 26 touchdowns along with a team-high six rushing scores, while JMU’s top two wideouts, Brown and Elijah Sarratt, have combined for 1,744 receiving yards. The senior quarterback completed 33 of 37 passes for 457 yards and four touchdowns in the Dukes’ 44-6 home win over UConn last weekend.

Clark added that while JMU has proven to be a force to be reckoned with this season, his team is up for the challenge of attempting to upset the home team in front of a large national audience.

“They’ve been able to win some games and go on the road to beat a Virginia football team for a Power Five win and do all the right things right now,” Clark said. “So it’s going to be challenging for us to go up there and play our best game for us to have a chance to win the game.”

The Dukes came out of Kidd Brewer Stadium with a 32-28 win over the Mountaineers last season. Overall, App State is 8-2 against JMU in 10 head-to-head matchups since 1985.