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James Madison quarterback Ben DiNucci (6) and wide receiver Brandon Polk (3) attempt to pump up the crowd in the final minutes of the game.

JMU football is preparing for its biggest test of the season: No. 1 North Dakota State. Both teams have endured hardships presented by the opponents they’ve faced, setting them up to blaze through the 2019 FCS Playoffs and earn a spot in the National Championship game. 

For the Dukes, tests have come in many forms, but whenever they’ve been put on the spot, they’ve come out looking stronger and earned their chance at FCS glory. Here are five moments that have defined JMU’s season so far. 

1. The fourth quarter against Villanova

In their first game after a three-game road trip, the Dukes hosted then-No. 5 Villanova, who was undefeated at the time. It would’ve been a statement win for the Wildcats, and when they led in the fourth quarter 24-17, the chance of an upset was high. 

Then, the momentum swung to the opposite side of the spectrum, and JMU took control

Redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk danced into the end zone from 26 yards out, junior safety MJ Hampton had a pick-six and freshman running back Latrele Palmer put the game to bed with a 69-yard scamper. 

In less than seven minutes, Villanova squandered a touchdown lead and found itself trailing by 14. 

Since that fourth quarter, the Dukes have outscored their opponents 335-98 in eight games, with the lowest margin of victory being 17 against Towson and Northern Iowa. They’ve had six games where they ran for over a combined 200 yards, and the defense has caused 16 turnovers since the win over Villanova. The defense has also allowed the opponent into the red zone 14 times and only gave up points on 10 occasions. In that same span, the offense was 40/43 in the red zone, helping them become the fifth best red zone offense in the FCS. 

The fourth quarter against Villanova can be seen as the wake-up call that paved JMU’s road to Frisco, Texas. Since then, its play has been nearly flawless, and it’s earned them a CAA championship.

2. Ben DiNucci’s interception throw against West Virginia

In the fourth quarter against the Mountaineers, JMU was still in range to complete another FBS upset. However, the upset bid went awry when redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci threw a costly interception that set up West Virginia to score and take a 20-10 lead. The Mountaineers didn’t look back and avoided the season-opening loss. 

The interception resembled the mistakes the Pittsburgh transfer made last season. In 2018 against New Hampshire, DiNucci had two turnovers in the first two possessions and was promptly replaced by redshirt junior quarterback Cole Johnson. Then, in the playoffs against Colgate, he threw five interceptions, leading to a 23-20 loss. 

DiNucci drew criticism from fans for turning over the ball at in high-pressure moments. Since that throw against West Virginia, DiNucci has proved he’s not the inconsistent quarterback seen in 2018. Instead, he showed he’s the field general the Dukes’ offense needed. 

With the second-highest passing efficiency in the FCS at 173, DiNucci has done well to limit costly turnovers that led to JMU’s demise last season. This season, he’s thrown 27 touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s also furthered his skill as a scrambler, running for seven touchdowns and averaging 4.9 yards per carry. 

While the interception was a major moment in the Dukes’ loss to West Virginia, it proved to be a turning point in DiNucci’s final season of college football. He’s earned CAA Offensive Player of the Year, First Team All-CAA, American Football Coaches Association First Team All-American and boasts the nation’s highest completion percentage at 71.3%. 

When JMU fell to Colgate in the second round of the 2018 FCS Playoffs, fans questioned DiNucci’s ability to take the next step and lead the Dukes deep into the playoffs. His improvement in the offseason and in the 2019 season shows how capable he is of leading a top-ranked team. 

3. Overtime win at Stony Brook

JMU endured a grueling three-game road stretch many teams would fear. First, it was a trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the Dukes defeated the Mocs 37-14. Then, in head coach Curt Cignetti’s first game at his former school, Elon, JMU orchestrated a dominant display en route to a 45-10 victory. 

Its third and final test in that road trip was then-No. 24 Stony Brook on the Seawolves’ homecoming. JMU led 38-28 with less than eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but home-field magic helped Stony Brook after a touchdown and a field goal sent the game to overtime. 

Redshirt junior Jawon Hamilton scored from three yards out on the Dukes’ first possession, and the defense stood the Seawolves up, closing out a dramatic 45-38 win. 

If there was a game to lose, it was against Stony Brook. Visiting a hostile crowd that yearned for a program-defining win on its homecoming served as one of the most difficult tests the Dukes faced all season. JMU responded like it has all of 2019 — by showing poise and fortitude, two characteristics that every team needs to make a run in the playoffs.

4. Brandon Polk arriving in Harrisonburg

Polk came to JMU with experience that can’t be replicated. The Ashburn, Virginia, native transferred from Penn State, a premier team in the Big 10. 

Before Polk landed in Harrisonburg for his redshirt senior season, the team needed a fast wide receiver who could make plays in an instant. Redshirt senior Riley Stapleton displayed his ability to perform when it matters, but his height needed to be complemented by speed. 

Enter Polk, who’s done more than showcase how important he is for the Dukes. 

Polk currently leads the team in receptions (73), receiving yards (1,173), receiving touchdowns (11) and average receiving yards per game (78.2). His speed and agility have caused fits for opposing secondaries, which also opened the field for Stapleton to use his big frame to make plays in the middle of the field. 

The offense adding a vital weapon to its arsenal has made it difficult for coaches to gameplan for JMU. Polk joining the Dukes was key to making the team multi-dimensional, alleviating some of the pressure put on the defense. 

5. John Daka’s third quarter against Monmouth

JMU’s defense has been one of the best in JMU history. The Dukes’ dominance on the defensive side of the ball was epitomized when senior defensive lineman John Daka set the single-season sacks record. 

In the third quarter, Daka had back-to-back sacks to give him 14.5 on the season, beating the previous record of 13.5 held by former defensive lineman Sage Harold. The Baltimore native added two more sacks against Northern Iowa in the FCS quarterfinals, further cementing his legacy as a Duke. 

Daka’s impressive season is one of the many parts to a stout front line that leads the nation in rush defense, only conceding 61.1 yards on the ground per game. It’s also first in total defense, second in third-down defense and third in scoring defense. 

There have been many moments fans will remember over the course of the 2019 season, all of which guided JMU to the title game in Frisco — this will serve as the ultimate defining moment of the Dukes’ campaign. 

Contact Noah Ziegler at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

There comes a time where an athlete realizes their true potential. When I realized that I was never going to make a living on the court, I figured I’d make it on the sidelines. I hope to be able to attend and cover the World Cup and NCAA tournament.