Kirlew

JMU football claims CAA title in final home game of the regular season.

JMU football had a lot to play for ahead of its showdown with in-state rival Richmond. It was the Dukes’ Senior Day, and they had a chance to claim sole possession of the CAA championship. 

Just as head coach Curt Cignetti has preached all season, the Dukes (10-1, 7-0 CAA) played like it was just another game. A dominating defensive performance and redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci’s four total touchdowns helped the Dukes defeat UR 48-6, handing JMU its third outright CAA title in five seasons and an automatic berth in the 2019 FCS Playoffs. 

“[I] can’t say enough about our team, our seniors,” Cignetti said. “Conference champions, we’re proud of that. [We’ve] got a game next week and got big goals down the road.”

Richmond (5-6, 4-3 CAA) needed to defeat JMU and hope the Dukes would lose to last-place Rhode Island next Saturday in order for the Spiders to get a piece of the conference championship, and in the first drive of the game, they came out and almost landed the game’s first punch. 

Almost.

UR redshirt junior quarterback Joe Mancuso led the Spiders 87 yards down the field, but JMU junior cornerback Wesley McCormick forced a fumble at the goal line that saw senior safety Adam Smith recover. On the next play, DiNucci found redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk near the center of the field, and the Ashburn, Virginia, native took off for an 80-yard touchdown. 

“I don’t know if any team has got somebody as fast as [Polk], it seems like every game we’re hitting a deep shot to him,” DiNucci said. “Credit to him … But really, it’s a team effort, we played solid today for four quarters. I hate to say it, but we still haven’t played our best game yet, and that’s a good thing.”

The Spiders went from nearly taking an early lead to finding themselves in a 7-0 hole. With a chance to recoup and put together another impressive drive, Richmond made another critical mistake after fumbling on the ensuing kickoff. JMU recovered and was able to extend its lead to 10 after redshirt junior kicker Ethan Ratke sunk a 22-yard field goal. 

It didn’t take long into the second quarter for JMU to strengthen its lead. Just over a minute in, junior running back Percy Agyei-Obese scored his 13th touchdown of the season, putting Richmond in a 17-point hole. However, the Spiders avoided the shutout after Mancuso led an eight-play, 52-yard drive that set up a field goal. 

“It was a tricky offense … Everybody did their job tonight,” redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway said. “We all played hard, played the right way and just played smart.”

Holloway was involved in 15 tackles, four of which were unassisted. He also had one tackle for loss and played a role in a sack. His play along with the rest of the stout JMU defense held Richmond to just 61 yards on the ground and 3-for-11 on third downs.

The Dukes responded to the field goal like they have all season when facing adversity: with composure. DiNucci capped a commanding first half by leading a nearly seven-minute drive that saw the Pitt transfer find redshirt senior wide receiver Riley Stapleton for an 11-yard touchdown, pushing JMU’s lead back to 24-3. DiNucci finished the first half 6-for-7 for 141 yards and two touchdowns.

2019 FCS Playoffs - JMU

Richmond tacked on another field goal as the second quarter ended, making the score 24-6 as the teams went into their locker rooms. JMU was 30 minutes away from winning another CAA title and all but sealing a top-eight seed in the 2019 FCS Playoffs. 

Another DiNucci to Stapleton touchdown, a 10-yard touchdown run from the Wexford, Pennsylvania, native and a field goal put a bow on a statement win. Redshirt junior running back Eric Kirlew added insurance late in the fourth quarter, giving the Dukes their biggest win in conference play.

Now with 10 wins for the third time in four seasons, the Dukes have posted another impressive season, but Cignetti and his team aren’t content with impressive — they want more, and the one-game-at-a-time mentality will become crucial in their postseason. 

“I think when the season starts, you sit down and you’re like, ‘All right, here’s what we want to do,’ and I think being CAA champs is the first part of it,” DiNucci said. “We’ll celebrate that tonight, but the reality is we still got another game next week and we’ve gotta take care of business heading into December.”

For the first time in over a month, JMU will hit the road next week as it takes on Rhode Island (2-9, 0-7 CAA) in the final game of the Dukes’ regular season. Kickoff in Kingston, Rhode Island, is set for noon. 

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

There comes a time where an athlete realizes their true potential. When I realized that I was never going to make a living on the court, I figured I’d make it on the sidelines. I hope to be able to attend and cover the World Cup and NCAA tournament.