With a packed Bridgeforth Stadium paying tribute to JMU football's departing seniors on Saturday afternoon, it was a redshirt freshman for the Dukes who stole the show.
Dae'Quan Scott took the reins of the offense and led JMU (5-5 overall, 2-5 in the Colonial Athletic Association) to a thrilling 30-24 victory over the No. 1 team in the country, the College of William & Mary (7-3, 5-2 in the CAA).
Scott played quarterback for the vast majority of the team's snaps, as the JMU game plan heavily incorporated the "wildcat" package. While he didn't throw a single pass, Scott was outstanding in the run game, rushing for 125 yards on 21 attempts and three touchdowns.
With the team's offensive struggles reaching the boiling point following last week's loss at the University of Richmond, JMU head coach Mickey Matthews felt it was necessary to mix things up.
According to the Matthews, the decision to move Scott was made "pulling out of the parking lot at Richmond."
As for Scott, it marked the first time the wide receiver/punt returner had prepared to play quarterback at JMU.
"I never really I knew I was going to be the focal point, but starting Monday they talked to me about playing quarterback," Scott said. "I never took reps at quarterback here."
From the start of the game it appeared Scott would be the Dukes' play-caller as redshirt senior Drew Dudzik, who missed Tuesday's practices with the flu, was only brought in on passing downs.
The team won the game despite not completing a pass, as the Dukes combined for 266 rushing yards. Redshirt senior running back Jamal Sullivan rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries. Redshirt junior running back Scott Noble and Dudzik each added 12 yards on the ground.
"I'm very disappointed in our play defensively and I'm sure JMU had something to do with it," W&M head coach Jimmye Laycock said. "They came in with a good plan and executed it. They ran through our tackles, whether they were breaking tackles, or we were missing tackles it depends which side of the field you were on."
Things didn't start in a winning fashion for JMU, as the team quickly ceded a 3-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Mike Callahan to junior tight end Alex Gottlieb on the game's opening drive.
JMU would give up a field goal halfway through the second quarter to extend the Tribe's lead to 10-0.
The final minute of the half yielded massive dividends for JMU, as Scott would begin the scoring for JMU with a 16-yard touchdown run with precisely 60 seconds remaining in the second quarter. After their defense held the Tribe to a three-and-out, the Dukes broke through the Tribe's protection and redshirt junior linebacker Josh Roach blocked W&M's punt.
Redshirt junior defensive end D.J. Bryant picked the ball up for JMU and ran two yards for a touchdown, giving the Dukes a 14-10 lead with 24 seconds left in the half.
"Roach just made a play, blocked it," Bryant said. "I guess I was Johnny-on-the-spot, in the right place at the right time. Coach Matthews always says that teams that give up blocked punts lose, and that was proven right today."
After halftime, JMU would put together one of its most complete drives of the season, capped off by a 3-yard touchdown run by Scott. The 14-play, 71 yard drive took 8:25 off the clock.
But the Tribe would counter the touchdown with a field goal to cut JMU's lead to 21-13, and on the ensuing kickoff utilized some trickery with an onside kick.
JMU was ill-prepared as redshirt freshman Drake Kuhn's kick was easily recovered by W&M sophomore cornerback B.W. Webb.
"That was a tremendous call and that kid made an excellent kick," Matthews said. "It was very well-executed."
Just three minutes later, sophomore wide receiver Ryan Moody would catch a 17-yard touchdown pass from Callahan. After the Tribe converted the two-point conversion, the game was tied, 21-21, with 14:55 left in the game.
But Scott quickly led the Dukes down the field again. With about 12 minutes remaining, Scott ran 30 yards for a touchdown to give JMU the game's deciding score. Scott's third touchdown of the game all but secured him "Player of the Game" honors, and earned him praise from his coach.
"The play of Dae'Quan was tremendous," Matthews said. "Hindsight is also 20/20, but we probably should have done something at quarterback four or five weeks ago."
On the ensuing drive, W&M would be forced to kick a field goal inside the red zone for the third time in the game. JMU would three-and-out on its next possession, and following a stellar punt from redshirt sophomore punter David Skahn, the Tribe got the ball at its own 1-yard line with 4:40 left in the game.
After JMU forced W&M to fourth down at their own 3-yard line, the Tribe decided to take a safety to give less favorable field position to JMU while still keeping the game within a touchdown's grasp.
The Dukes would punt the ball back to the Tribe with just over two minutes to play, but once again the defense made the necessary plays to keep W&M out of the end zone.
The Dukes' 13 points in the second half was the most they've scored in CAA play, while Scott's fourth quarter touchdown was the team's first in the final quarter since defeating Virginia Tech on Sept. 11.
"I feel like we should have been putting up points all year, even when we didn't have the wildcat offense in," Scott said. "But we made some mistakes on offense, but we turned it around today."
With the victory the Dukes extended their all-time advantage to a record of 18-15 against the Tribe. Winning the in-state rivalry game gave the team's seniors, playing their final game at Bridgeforth, a sense of pride.
"The one game I care so much about is the William & Mary game," redshirt senior defensive tackle Ronnell Brown said. "Despite the fact they're No. 1, I don't see that. I see William & Mary."
Saturday, the team will travel to the University of Maine and attempt to secure another winning season under Matthews. But with the team's playoff hopes dashed, it's hard not to ask what could have been following such a promising start to the season.
"We just won a close game, which we haven't done in a while, and if we had, we wouldn't be staying at home in two weeks," Matthews said.
Contact Michael Demsky at email@example.com.