Over the course of 7:12 in the first quarter against North Dakota, JMU football (7-0, 3-0 CAA) put its star-studded running back group to work as it traversed 80 yards on 13 plays, culminating with a touchdown to put its lead to 10 at the time.
While the score was 10-0, it was a suffocating drive that put the Dukes in the driver’s seat early. The Fighting Hawks (5-2, 4-1 MVFC) responded and stayed within striking distance for the majority of the game, but JMU closed out the game and advanced to the FCS semifinals with a 34-21 win.
“I thought we played well in both halves both offensively and defensively,” Johnson said. “We knew it was going to be a physical game. Those guys are big and athletic on North Dakota and they blitz a lot, so, you know, I thought our offensive line did an incredible job tonight.”
The Dukes’ defense opened the game by nearly forcing a three-and-out, but a pass interference call on redshirt senior linebacker Kelvin Azanama gave UND a first down. However, one play later, Azanama made up for the penalty and picked off redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Schuster for his first career interception. Schuster finished the day 16 of 26 for 213 yards and two picks.
The Dukes’ offense didn’t move the ball much, but redshirt senior kicker Ethan Ratke converted a season-long 43-yard field goal that broke the deadlock. On the ensuing drive, JMU forced a three-and-out, but the punt hit off senior cornerback Taurus Carroll and gave UND the ball with good field position.
Once again, JMU’s defense flexed its muscles and came up with another key stop midway through the first quarter. The offense took over and utilized three running backs — senior Percy Agyei-Obese, sophomore Latrele Palmer and redshirt sophomore Solomon Vanhorse — en route to an impressive 80-yard drive culminating in Agyei-Obese punching it in from three yards out to make it 10-0.
When it looked like North Dakota couldn’t muster any momentum, redshirt sophomore running back Otis Weah broke free for 45 yards to put the Fighting Hawks in JMU territory. Two players later, freshman quarterback Quincy Vaughn stepped in and found a lane to the end zone from five yards out to cut the lead to 10-7.
JMU responded with another clinical drive that resulted in Agyei-Obese getting his second score of the day. Up 17-7, the Dukes were in a commanding position with plenty of time remaining.
On the following drive, JMU’s lead almost grew to 17 after senior cornerback Wesley McCormick jumped a route to force Schuster’s second turnover of the day. However, almost immediately after making the catch, McCormick — who had a clear path toward the end zone — fell down and grabbed his upper right leg. He wouldn’t return to the game.
North Dakota’s defense came up with key stops that prevented the game from getting out of their hands. That sparked the Fighting Hawks’ offense, which then went 91 yards on 10 plays and allowed Weah to score once again to make it a three-point game.
The Dukes got the ball with 1:35 remaining in the half and orchestrated a quick drive that finished with Ratke adding another field goal as the clock expired. Heading into the locker room, JMU held a 20-14 advantage.
The third quarter saw the Dukes have more control over the game. North Dakota had opportunities to move the ball and potentially claim its first lead of the game, but JMU had an answer for everything thrown at it.
Another long, exhausting drive that spanned 87 yards for nearly five minutes, redshirt senior quarterback Cole Johnson found freshman wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr. in the middle of the field, which turned into a 19-yard touchdown play to make it a 27-14 game.
“It’s a great win against a really good team. I thought we really took it to them from a physical standpoint,” head coach Curt Cignetti said. “On offense, you know, [JMU was] running the ball downhill, and then you know, Cole to Wells [Jr.] was money in the bank.”
With it still being a two-possession game, UND struggled to take over and make a late comeback bid. That hope was quickly diminished after Johnson connected with Wells Jr. deep down the sideline for a 63-yard score, giving Wells Jr. his first multi-touchdown game of his college career and putting the game to bed at 34-14.
Despite trailing by 20, North Dakota continued to try and put together a dramatic late-game comeback. Sophomore running back Luke Skokna capped another long drive by the Fighting Hawks to make it 34-21, but that was all UND could come up with before the clock hit all zeroes.
Johnson finished with an efficient 14 of 17 clip for 251 yards and two touchdown throws. Agyei-Obese added 128 rushing yards and two scores, while Wells Jr. had a career-high 143 yards off seven catches and two TDs.
JMU will travel to Huntsville, Texas, to face No. 2-seeded Sam Houston State on Sunday. It’ll be the second time the two schools faced each other, with the last meeting happening in 2016 when the Dukes overpowered the Bearkats 65-7.
The Dukes are one game away from returning to Frisco, Texas, to avenge their national title loss to North Dakota State a season ago. The idea of being close to that opportunity is exciting for a program that continues to grow, but redshirt junior linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey said it'll only matter if the job gets done.
“I don’t think it really means anything if we don’t finish,” Tucker-Dorsey said. “We gotta go do it all the way this time.”
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.