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JMU football plays again at Bridgeforth Stadium after beating Northern Iowa, 17-0.

It wasn’t pretty. But in the playoffs, looks don’t matter. 

As it has all 2019, JMU football (13-1, 8-0 CAA) took every challenge thrown at it and adjusted. Last week, the Dukes’ offense put up 66 points to help a defense that struggled to start. This time, it was the defense assisting the offense ahead of JMU’s 17-0 victory over Northern Iowa. 

JMU’s defense allowed just 114 total yards, all of which were passing. It also sacked McElvain seven times and had nine tackles for loss. UNI didn’t cross midfield until there was 1:29 remaining in the game.

“At this point in the season, it's always a good win,” head coach Curt Cignetti said. “Great defensive performance, really a tremendous performance — zero yards rushing [and] got the shutout.” 

Both teams traded punts on their respective first drives, but it was JMU that opened the scoring. Redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci led the Dukes on a nine-play, 66-yard drive that ended in a 15-yard touchdown throw to redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk. The Penn State transfer has scored in the last nine games, totaling 11 touchdowns in 2019. 

In the first half, JMU’s defense allowed one yard on the ground and 30 through the air. The Panthers averaged 1.5 yards per play, and redshirt freshman quarterback Will McElvain was sacked three times, but that wasn’t the end of UNI’s problems: It had two costly turnovers in its own territory that gifted the Dukes’ offense a short field to find the end zone before the half. 

Instead, JMU came up empty on both drives. One ended in a turnover, and the other finished with a missed field goal. At halftime, the Dukes dominated in nearly every statistical category and led UNI, 10-0. 

“We knew they lined up in certain formations when they came out in, like, big personnel,” redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway said. “We knew certain plays that they would want to run, so we just called great defenses for it, and then we just executed.”

The Panthers got the ball to start the second half with the opportunity to cut into JMU’s lead, but the Dukes’ defense forced another three-and-out. DiNucci took over and got the offense to the UNI 6-yard line, but a last-second decision to toss it to a JMU receiver was picked off in the end zone by redshirt junior cornerback Xavior Williams. 

JMU left more points on the field right before the fourth quarter as redshirt junior kicker Ethan Ratke missed his second field goal of the game — the first time the Mechanicsville, Virginia, native had done so this season. With 15 minutes standing between the Dukes and a spot in the semifinals, UNI remained within striking distance. 

“I knew we had to finish the game,” junior running back Percy Agyei-Obese said, who Cignetti mentioned was cramping toward the end of the contest. “I knew we were going to run the ball a lot … I knew getting an IV would take too long, and we just had to finish off the game as a running back group.” 

Like the first three quarters, the Panthers’ offense couldn’t string together a drive to make the game interesting down the stretch. The discrepancy in the time of possession began to play a critical role in the game as JMU had the ball more than two times the amount UNI possessed it. 

As UNI couldn’t crack the code of the opposition defense, Agyei-Obese added a touchdown with 2:19 remaining in the game to all but confirm the Dukes’ spot in the semifinals. It also extended JMU’s streak of consecutive games with a rushing touchdown to 19. 

DiNucci finished 19-for-28 for 157 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Agyei-Obese added 124 yards on the ground and a touchdown that solidified the Dukes’ place in the 2019 FCS Playoffs semifinals. The Dukes’ 17 points are the least scored since August of 2014, where JMU fell to Maryland 52-7. 

JMU will host the winner of No. 6 Montana and No. 3 Weber State in the semifinals. The game will take place on Dec. 21 with the time of kickoff to be announced. UNI finishes the season 10-4 (6-2 MVFC). 

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.