When JMU football took the field Saturday to face Monmouth in the second round of the 2019 FCS Playoffs, the Dukes were the favorite by 29 points. On the opening kickoff, it looked as if they were forcing a fumble and pinning the Hawks on their own 7-yard line.
But, the momentum quickly shifted as junior running back Pete Guerriero broke free for a 93-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, silencing the home crowd at Bridgeforth Stadium. JMU responded with a 49-yard touchdown reception by redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk, reinvigorating the purple-and-gold faithful.
Monmouth answered. Junior wide receiver Lonnie Moore IV returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards, once again giving the lead to the visitors.
The two were tied at 21 with 12 minutes left in the first half, and that’s when the Dukes showed their veteran capabilities. From the 11:49 mark in the second quarter on, JMU exhibited its experience by scoring 45 unanswered points, showing the poise and composure that the Dukes have.
“We face a lot of adversity, not just this year. Most of us are fourth-year, fifth-year guys, so we’ve been through the fire,” senior defensive lineman John Daka said. “We knew exactly how to react toward adversity. We don’t try to overreact with everything we do … We know what type of brand of ball we play, so we know we have to be resilient in everything we do.”
The spotlight has been on JMU for a few seasons now. When former head coach Mike Houston won the program’s second national championship, the expectations in Harrisonburg grew exponentially. When the Dukes lost in the second round of the playoffs a season later, it was a hard lesson to learn, but a necessary one.
The current players that were in Hamilton, New York, to watch Colgate upset JMU know how to manage tough times. When news broke that Houston was potentially leaving for an FBS-level job, the focus shifted from the Dukes trying to get back to Frisco to figuring out the coaching controversy. Now over a year since then, the maturity JMU forged led them to a 12-1 (8-0 CAA) record so far in 2019.
Daka said that maintaining composure is something head coach Curt Cignetti preaches to the team. Keeping a solid balance will help the Dukes take punches from opponents and turn them into momentum, which is essential in a playoff run.
The offense did its job Saturday by scoring 56 of JMU’s 66 points, and the defense showed it could recoup after giving up an early score. It forced Monmouth to go 3-for-10 on third down and limited them to 93 rushing yards.
“I wasn’t necessarily worried that our defense wasn’t gonna settle in, and they did a heck of a job,” redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci said. “We knew regardless that we were going to have to score points. [It was] a good job by the offense.”
Cignetti said a big moment in the game was when there were over four minutes left in the first half. Up 31-21, the Dukes had it fourth-and 4 on the Monmouth 17-yard line, and Cignetti had a decision to make: Let redshirt junior kicker Ethan Ratke attempt a 32-yard kick, or go for it.
Cignetti elected to trust his offense and went for it on fourth down. DiNucci found sophomore wide receiver Devin Ravenel — who hadn’t recorded a reception since late October — for a 15-yard gain. Two plays later, junior running back Percy Agyei-Obese punched it in, extending the Dukes’ lead to 38-21 with 1:35 left until halftime.
“A lot of people there would say, ‘Kick the field goal,’ but it’s still a two-score game, and I felt like if we did that, maybe that’s a little bit of a win for them,” Cignetti said. “When you have the opportunity to make it a three-score game, you’re going to have to make a play. So, we went for it.”
The gutsy play-calling by Cignetti and offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery is what puts JMU ahead of its playoff rivals. The Dukes may not roll out trick plays often, but the confidence to trust the offense and put the game to bed instead of taking an almost guaranteed three points is something many teams don’t have.
The fourth-and-4 play call was another situation that exemplified how the Dukes handle adversity. On Oct. 5, JMU faced then-No. 24 Stony Brook on the Seawolves’ homecoming. The Dukes squandered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead yet prevailed in overtime.
Just a week later, JMU trailed Villanova 24-17 heading into the fourth quarter. It was the Dukes’ first home game in three weeks, but the pseudo-homecoming wasn’t going to plan. Then, the Dukes scored three touchdowns in 6:25 en route to a 38-24 win.
The calmness Cignetti’s team showed in October is now on display in December. That clutch trait is critical for any team’s push for the national championship, but the growth this team has shown can even be traced all the way back to the Colgate loss.
When DiNucci threw five interceptions against Colgate, fans called his level of play into question. Now, the Pitt transfer is the 2019 CAA Offensive Player of the Year and has thrown just four interceptions in all of 2019.
This season has been all business for players like Daka and DiNucci. Daka set the JMU single-season sacks record with 14.5 and is also a First-Team All-CAA defensive lineman, while DiNucci is in the top-five in the FCS in passing efficiency (177.5) and is the catalyst in the nation’s highest-scoring offense.
“It’s a blessing to be playing. It’s a blessing to keep putting on this JMU uniform, going out there and playing with my brothers,” Daka said. “I’m going to cherish every moment and not take it for granted.”
Poise will be vital for the Dukes in their journey to Frisco, Texas. As they’re tested throughout the postseason, it’s moments like the fourth-down conversion that show how much this team has grown since its early playoff exit last year.
JMU will host the University of Northern Iowa on Friday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2 and will kick off at 7 p.m.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.