There's nothing quite like playoff football.
The game started fast and probably not how most JMU fans had drawn it up, but the Dukes got it done, moving on to the next round of the playoffs with a 66-21 win over Monmouth.
What looked like a promising start for the Dukes after forcing a fumble and pinning the Hawks back at their own 7-yard line quickly turned sour. The No. 1 rusher in the nation, Pete Guerriero, took his first snap of the game 93 yards to the house.
“Not a great start, a couple big plays there,” head coach Curt Cignetti said. “You could see physically that we were taking control the game as it went on … It's a start. Now we gotta learn to start.”
Redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci showed poise as he led the offense onto the field, trailing early. The Wexford, Pennsylvania, native went 4-for-4 on the first drive, throwing for 70 yards, which included a 49-yard touchdown pass to redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk.
But, Monmouth had a response.
Off the kickoff, Monmouth returner Lonnie Moore took the kick 93 yards for another score. With the Dukes trailing 14-7, DiNucci once again kept his team under control, showing the nation why JMU is the No. 2 team in the country.
“They didn't really do anything that we didn't expect them to do all week,” DiNucci said. “So, I'm just doing my job and having fun, and those are the biggest things.”
After the Hawks’ touchdown on the kick, JMU went on a 14-point run to give the Dukes their first lead of the day. While Monmouth tied JMU at 21 on the first play of the second quarter, that was the closest the Hawks got for the remainder of the contest.
With the JMU offense rolling and the defense starting to get its footing, Monmouth struggled to regain any momentum the Dukes had captured. After putting up 136 yards in the opening 15 minutes, Monmouth only recorded another 65 yards, most of which came through the air. Even when it seemed like the Hawks would put points on the board to end the half, the Dukes managed to block the field goal attempt twice after a timeout call gave Monmouth a second chance.
“I've never really iced the kicker before, and it’s worked out,” Cignetti said. “I figured, 'Well, I'm going to do it this time,' and I saw us block it, and I got a couple guys saying, 'Nah, nah. They heard the whistle blow, so they didn't block' to try to make me feel better … So, when we blocked the second one, I felt a little redeemed.”
If DiNucci’s calm presence on the opening few possessions wasn’t enough for JMU fans, he continued to show it into the second quarter. The redshirt senior led the Dukes on their fourth consecutive scoring drive, this time taking it in for the score himself.
DiNucci’s 6-yard touchdown run was his fifth on the season as he faked almost the entire stadium, going to the left side of the end zone. He added his sixth rushing score of the year on the first drive of the second half.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton led all receivers with 87 yards and Polk following close behind with 83. DiNucci finished the contest 21-of-25 for 273 yards — his second-highest total this season. The JMU offense also finished 2-for-2 on fourth-down conversions.
“[When] guys are making plays outside, it's easy when I just get to throw it up to them,” DiNucci said. “Riley made a bunch of plays today. Brandon had another really good day, and then we got some from Dylan [Stapleton] and Jake Brown.”
At the start of the game, it seemed like Monmouth would put up a season-high total on the JMU defense in terms of rushing. But, that plan quickly folded. By the end of the third quarter, Monmouth had only 93 yards on the ground, partly due to JMU redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter and senior defensive lineman John Daka combining for three sacks and five tackles for loss.
That wasn’t all for Daka, either. On his birthday, the Upper Marlboro, Maryland, native set the single-season record for sacks, which previously sat at 13.5.
To start the second half, the Dukes also got redshirt junior defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa back in their arsenal after he had to sit out the opening half due to a targeting call against Rhode Island.
“We just gotta respond to adversity,” Carter said. “A lot of things are going to happen in a football game — that happens … They make a big play, we make a big play, but it's always about just playing your game.”
To all but seal the game, redshirt senior cornerback Charles Tutt nabbed a 79-yard pick six — the second of his career.
Next up for the Dukes is Northern Iowa. The Panthers will travel to Harrisonburg with the date of the game to be determined. This weekend’s matchup will be the first between the two programs.
Contact Catie Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.