For the third time in the past four seasons, the Dukes will make the trip to Frisco, Texas.
In the final home game at Bridgeforth Stadium for the 2019 season, JMU football met a familiar playoff foe in Weber State. Unlike the game two years ago, this year’s scoreline was dominated by the Dukes. Nevertheless, the result was the same. JMU knocked off the Wildcats 30-14 to punch its ticket to the FCS National Championship.
“It was good,” head coach Curt Cignetti said. “I don't know, I guess I'm wired differently. I was thinking about the mistakes, coaching errors, things like that. But, it's great to have another opportunity, and we're not going to be happy until we get what we want.”
As a redshirt sophomore in 2017, wide receiver Riley Stapleton had a breakout performance against Weber State. Now a redshirt senior, the Indiana, Pennsylvania, native continued his success against the team from Ogden, Utah.
A promising return from redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk — which put the Dukes in Weber State territory — suddenly turned bleak after penalties continued to push JMU backward. It was on fourth-and-30 when Stapleton put an exclamation point on a dominant first half, hauling in a 34-yard touchdown pass from redshirt senior Ben DiNucci.
“I was fortunate enough to have my number called a few times,” Stapleton said. “We just knew, like, going into the game that there was gonna be some opportunities in the pass game down the field, and I was just fortunate enough to come down with a few plays.”
Stapleton finished the night leading all receivers in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. His 162 receiving yards are the second-highest total of his career, trailing only his previous performance against Weber State.
Stapleton’s success for the Dukes came largely in part to the play under center from DiNucci. The Wexford, Pennsylvania, native continued to show poise even with pressure from the Weber State defensive line. DiNucci finished the contest 19 of 26 with 255 yards, two touchdowns through the air and one with his legs.
“We knew that if they were going to play some man coverage that we were going to have some opportunities to have some quarterback runs,” DiNucci, who ended the game as the leading rusher, said. “We had a few of them in the first half and a few of them where I still made the wrong read.”
At this point in the season, commenting on the JMU defense’s success has become almost repetitive. The group continues to frustrate its opponents, putting an emphasis on why it’s one of the best units in the nation.
Weber State junior quarterback Jake Constantine saw pressure from the Dukes’ front four throughout the game. While only enduring two quarterback hits, Constantine and the offense struggled to string together long drives. Constantine finished the day 16 of 31 with 186 yards and two touchdowns.
The Dukes’ defense also left another team stagnant when it came to success rushing the ball. The Wildcats managed only 70 yards on the ground, with sophomore running back Josh Davis leading the team with 61 yards.
“It's almost an identical team,” Weber State head coach Jay Hill said. “They can run it, they can throw it, they've got [a] great defense. I think they'll play great in the national championship game, and this is a heck of a team”
Even when Weber State started to enter JMU’s side of the field more often as the game progressed, the Dukes found a way to force the Wildcats to the sideline with no points to show for their work. With over 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Weber State was close to reducing JMU’s lead to 17.
Enter redshirt junior defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa, who blocked the kick to all but seal the game for JMU.
Constantine did find sophomore wide receiver Ty MacPherson later in the fourth quarter for a touchdown, but the Dukes ran the clock out on the ensuing drive.
“After we got that last first down on that one I threw to Riley, I think we all kind of looked at each other [and were] like, 'Let's take this in, it's pretty cool,’” DiNucci said. “But, it's kind of hard not to think about when there's four minutes left and you're trying to run the clock out.”
With its home schedule over, JMU will board a plane in a few short weeks to make the 1,200 mile trip to Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. There, the Dukes will meet yet another familiar face — FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. Kickoff is set for January 11, 2020, at noon.
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.