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JMU wide receiver Scott Bracey races down the field against Towson on Nov. 20.

JMU football has its eyes on the prize — the 2021 FCS National Championship. First, the Dukes host Southeastern Louisiana (SLU) in the second round. JMU is back in playoff action  for what the team calls "The Final Run." The saying is scattered throughout the Dukes' social media, with the move to the Sun Belt coming next season.

While SLU didn’t get much rest between the regular season and the start of the playoffs, the No. 3 Dukes said they feel rested from the break following their first-round bye and that it's an advantage JMU can use against the Lions. 

"This bye week was really good for us to have the week off," redshirt senior quarterback Cole Johnson said. "We were able to get off our feet for a little bit ... it's really helped."

SLU enters the second round after defeating Florida A&M 38-14. Led by senior quarterback Cole Kelley, the Lions scored in all four quarters versus the Rattlers.

"I want to play these games," SLU head coach Frank Scelfo said. "This is why I came here, this is why our team prepares — to play in this situation and these venues."

The Lions had 158 rushing yards and 354 passing yards — an average of 5.4 yards per play. Defensively, SLU broke through FAMU's offensive line four times for a sack. 

Johnson and Kelley are both Walter Payton Award finalists this season; Kelley won it in the spring. Johnson admitted that while Kelley has talent, he didn't pay attention to how he performed against FAMU but rather focused more on dissecting the Lions' defense.

"His offensive production that he puts up is really good ... I think he's a matchup problem," Johnson said. "But obviously, we're more focused on the defense and watching what they do."

The CAA Player of the Year is third in the FCS in pass efficiency (170.3), and the Southland Conference Player of Year is sixth (177.6). Johnson and Kelley also rank nationally in completion percentage and points responsible for. 

Aside from the quarterbacks, this is the fifth time the Dukes have played against a Southland Conference program — two of which were against then-member Sam Houston in 2016 and 2020, respectively. 

But the Dukes have never met the Lions. 

Lions senior defensive back Sterrling Fisher led SLU against FAMU with seven tackles, followed up by freshman defensive back Jack Henderson with six. The two have provided pressure all season and are part of the reason opponents struggle with one-on-ones — but JMU head coach Curt Cignetti still remains confident in his receivers’ abilities.

“Your production is your production, and this week’s a new challenge,” Cignetti said. “You’ve got to play your strengths … but it’s a total team plan.”

The Dukes feature a new face in this week’s depth chart — redshirt freshman center Tanner Morris enters the lineup in lieu of redshirt junior Stanley Hubbard entering the transfer portal, announced by Cignetti. JMU Director of Communications Chris Brooks sent The Breeze the following statement via text message, on behalf of Cignetti:

“After deciding as a staff to make a change at the center position, Stanley Hubbard has entered the transfer portal.”

Saturday’s game will be Morris’ first collegiate start, and the offensive line only has one remaining upperclassman listed on the depth chart: redshirt senior All-American Liam Fornadel. 

Even with the changes, the Dukes say they are still confident in its ability to take down SLU. The description of a “one-game season” impacts every player on the team, as the very last FCS playoff run for the Dukes is only days away.

“A lot of guys had a real sour taste in their mouth the way [last season’s] Sam Houston game ended,” Cignetti said. “It’s been a motivating factor … and we’ll continue to find a way.”

Contact Madison Hricik breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.