FRISCO, Texas — JMU football’s players are still digesting what happened.
From a near upset of FBS power West Virginia in late August to rampaging through the regular season and playoffs, the Dukes’ season came to a close at the biggest stage of FCS football.
JMU had the chance to play spoiler in NDSU’s dynasty yet again and prove that the program belongs in the same echelon as the Bison. It was a chance for No. 2 to prove itself as the true No. 1 team but its magic ran short.
The Dukes defeated five ranked teams in the regular season, including two wins over seeded opponents in the playoffs. The team built a resume that few teams could match, even after falling short in the 2019 FCS National Championship.
“Right now, to be honest, it doesn’t even feel real,” redshirt senior cornerback Rashad Robinson said. “It’s still kind of a shock to think that’s my last game. For five years, for what I’ve been through and the other guys in the locker room have been through, it hasn’t really hit me yet.”
Robinson was a member of the 2016 JMU team that won the program’s second national championship, interrupting NDSU’s run of five straight FCS titles. A season later, he was named the 2018 CAA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, but a season-ending injury before the campaign began allowed him to be back in 2019.
Back as the team’s top cornerback, Robinson’s ball-hawk ability helped shut down opposing wide receivers. Redshirt junior safety D’Angelo Amos and senior safety Adam Smith also played a significant role in the team’s secondary, but Robinson’s experience and leadership played a major role in the development of the younger defensive backs.
Robinson ended the title game with five total tackles. He said he plans to take a week off and recuperate before training for the team’s Pro Day.
“It’s been an honor,” Robinson said. “In 2015, I made the best decision of my life to come here and play for JMU. These five years, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
What makes the current JMU roster unique is the number of starters that transferred from other schools. Senior tight end Dylan Stapleton, who came from Division II’s Slippery Rock, joined the team following his sophomore season.
Against NDSU, Stapleton had six catches for 66 yards and converted multiple first downs. His play kept a few JMU drives alive during the second-half comeback, but he said the slow start put the Dukes in a position that they ultimately couldn’t climb out of.
“Pretty rough start in the first half. [They] hit us on a couple of trick plays, and the fake field goal hurt,” Stapleton said. “I think our offense stalled a little bit in the first half, but I thought we played better in the second half. We got it down to the wire, just couldn’t finish.”
When the offense stalled, NDSU redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance thrived. He finished the game with 166 rushing yards — the first time any player has rushed for over 100 yards against JMU this season — and one touchdown. His 44-yard touchdown in the second quarter was a critical point in the contest and showcased how quickly he can turn the momentum around.
Redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway said Lance’s ability to run the ball gives the Bison a major advantage. On plays where the running back takes the ball, the quarterback is effectively nonexistent, meaning there’s one less blocker for the defense to worry about. But when the QB runs it, the running back can block for him, allowing more gaps to be busted open.
With the 2019 season now finished, the team will now undergo a transition period. The seniors who have either graduated or will graduate in May will say their goodbyes, and the next wave of recruits will arrive in Harrisonburg with the same goals as the veterans did years ago. To senior defensive end John Daka, the blueprint has been made, and the talent will continue to flourish.
“This isn’t the last time you’ll see the Dukes in Frisco,” Daka said.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.