Cardon Johnson sad

JMU senior Cardon Johnson walks onto the field after playing his final game with James Madison University.

JMU football’s run to a third-straight FCS title game appearance ended in Hamilton, New York, when the Dukes fell 23-20 to No. 8 Colgate on Saturday. JMU finishes the season 9-4. A late Raiders field goal following a failed fake punt by JMU gave Colgate the edge over the Dukes in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

“It was exactly the game we had planned for all week,” JMU head coach Mike Houston said. “It was a field position, take advantage of mistakes, momentum and kind of [a] gut-check kind of ball game … We had a chance to win it. I thought that’s a game I thought we were going to win.”

JMU started off the day hot, scoring its first touchdown in the opening three minutes of the game. Through the rest of the game, however, it was tough sledding for JMU's offense. Redshirt junior quarterback Ben DiNucci did throw for 192 yards and rushed for 76, but also had five interceptions and a fumble on the day.

“Honestly, I played terrible,” DiNucci said. “Five interceptions, it can’t happen at any level. I don’t care if it’s middle school, high school or professional football, so I’m going to put that on me. I had my worst game probably of my career.”

The Dukes picked up some momentum early in the third quarter with a forced fumble, but after a penalty caused them to settle for a field goal, the Raiders fought back and stole the momentum. When DiNucci threw his fourth and fifth interceptions on the day day in the next two ensuing drives, redshirt freshman quarterback Gage Maloney came in to relieve DiNucci.

“I just wanted Ben to calm down a little bit,” Houston said. “It’s just one of those gut feeling things as a coach … I came over to him in between that and just told him ‘Go relax and go play.’”

Maloney’s time under center was short lived, seeing only one drive before DiNucci made his return. After the short benching, DiNucci led JMU to one touchdown drive, which he scored on a seven-yard run.

“[Ben’s] going to take a lot of heat and I’m going to take a lot of heat for the loss,” Houston said. “It’s not him … He’s the reason we’re here. If it wasn’t for him and the way he’s played all year long, we wouldn’t be in this ballgame, so people can blame me if they want to.”

While the offense struggled to gain its footing in the second half of play, the Dukes’ defense gave the team every opportunity to get back into the game. The defense held strong on a fourth-down attempt after DiNucci’s interception and held Colgate to multiple three-and-outs in the fourth quarter.

The game started well for JMU on the defensive side of the ball. Through the first half of action, JMU gave up only 118 yards — evenly split at 59 yards for passing and rushing — and held the Raiders to just two field goals.

“They’re good [up front on defense],” Colgate head coach Dan Hunt said. “That’s what I told our offense. They were getting a little bit frustrated … I thought in the first half we had a lot of situations where … we had long developing plays — especially in the pass game — that’s not what you want to do against this defense.”

One of the biggest tests the Dukes knew they’d face coming into the matchup was redshirt senior running back James Holland. Heading into the game, Holland had racked up 1,065 yards on the ground and 153 off the pass for 14 touchdowns.

The Dukes held Holland to just 89 yards on the ground and 46 through the air, while keeping him out of the end zone throughout the game. While the defense limited Holland during the game, the effort fell just short with the late field goal.  

JMU heads into the offseason with a lot of questions surrounding the program. With Houston’s name being connected to multiple FBS programs, there’s no guarantee who’ll lead the Dukes into the 2019 season.

“I’m blessed to have been the football coach at James Madison University this year,” Houston said. “I don’t know what my future holds … I hate that college football has gotten to the point where this stuff happens during playoff time. I’ve got a really good job and I’ve got great kids.”

Contact Catie Harper at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

Pat Summitt, Erin Andrews and Lindsay Czarniak were three names that inspired me growing up. Here I am now at JMU, Czarniak’s alma mater, taking steps to live out my dream. As Pat would say, “I’m going to keep on keepin’ on, I promise you that.”