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JMU redshirt freshman wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr. catches a touchdown against Southeaster Louisiana on Dec. 4 in the FCS second round. 

The mission was to survive and advance. The Dukes did that, and more.

In a standout 59-20 victory over Southeastern Louisiana, No. 3 JMU football made its message for the playoffs loud and clear thanks to JMU head coach Curt Cignetti — “onto the next one.” 

Both teams went back-and-forth throughout the first quarter, with JMU redshirt senior quarterback Cole Johnson and SLU senior quarterback Cole Kelley putting up Walter Payton Award finalist numbers. The two were above a 50% completion rate and threw at least one touchdown, the Dukes had a 14-10 lead after one quarter. 

“We came out and tried to get the RPO game … and we told our receivers to just run by those guys,” Johnson said. “It was kind of our motto … We’re the better athletes.”

Johnson found redshirt freshman wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr. and redshirt sophomore running back Solomon Vanhorse — intermixed with a Kelley connection to senior wide receiver Brennon Dingle and an SLU field goal — for the early edge. 

Then it all fell apart for the Lions, and Johnson decided it was his time to shine. 

JMU scored three touchdowns — all one-play drives — to separate themselves from the Lions. It grew into a battle between the wide receivers, and Johnson benefited from their success.

“We just came to the sideline and saw that we could just run by these guys,” redshirt junior wide receiver Kris Thornton said. “And that’s what we did.”

Thornton made a 57-yard catch to make it 21-10, and although SLU junior kicker Mateo Rengifo cut the deficit by three, Thornton and Wells Jr. had another plan in mind. 

A fumble recovery by redshirt senior linebacker Kelvin Azanama paved the way for Johnson to connect with Wells Jr. for another six points, this time a 21-yard grab. Of course, the redshirt senior didn’t let the wide receivers have all the fun and scored a 35-yard rushing touchdown after an interception by redshirt senior cornerback Greg Ross. 

The Dukes snagged a field goal after a second interception by redshirt junior linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey before the end of the half, and JMU went into the locker room with a 38-13 lead.

“We wanted this challenge because we believe we’re one of the best defenses in the country,” Tucker-Doresy said. 

Right out of the gate, Tucker-Dorsey continued JMU’s momentum. The linebacker sprinted 43 yards to the house for his first pick six and multi-interception game. 

Wells Jr. and Thornton both scored a third-quarter touchdown — and the defense shut out Kelley’s attempts to answer back. With only 15 minutes on the clock, JMU had all the momentum and a 59-13 hold over the Lions. 

“We try to be competitive with each other,” Thornton said. “But we’re just out there having fun and playing our football — that’s all it is.”

Kelley found senior wide receiver Austin Mitchell for an 8-yard touchdown after a nearly 30-minute scoring drought as the fourth quarter began, but there was no stopping the Dukes. The defense continued to pin Kelley and his offense behind the line of scrimmage, forcing the Lions to punt again and again. By then it was too late, and JMU advanced into the FCS Quarterfinals with the 59-20 victory.   

“That was a great team win … We took it over physically,” Cignetti said. “It’s a good start.”

The Dukes will host No. 6 Montana for the FCS Quarterfinals, with the game time yet to be announced. 

Scoring summary

Q1 8:58: SLU field goal, Mateo Rengifo, 21-yard, SLU 3-0

Q1 7:00: JMU touchdown, Antwane Wells Jr., 22-yard, JMU 7-3

Q1 6:06: SLU touchdown, Brennan Dingle, 54-yard, SLU 10-7

Q1 1:51: JMU touchdown, Solomon Vanhorse, 63-yard, JMU 14-10

Q2 13:06: JMU touchdown, Kris Thornton, 57-yard, JMU 21-10

Q2 4:34: SLU field goal, Mateo Rengifo, 28-yard, JMU 21-13

Q2 2:56: JMU touchdown, Antwane Wells Jr., 21-yard, JMU 28-13

Q2 2:23: JMU touchdown, Cole Johnson, 35-yard, JMU 35-13

Q2 0:33: JMU field goal, Ethan Ratke, 25-yard, JMU 38-13

Q3 13:34: JMU touchdown, Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey, 43-yard, JMU 45-13

Q3 7:43: JMU touchdown, Antwane Wells Jr., 31-yard, JMU 52-13

Q3 3:57: JMU touchdown, Kris Thornton, 3-yard, JMU 59-13

Q4 13:49: SLU touchdown, Austin Mitchell, 8-yard, JMU 59-20

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