It wasn’t pretty, but JMU football got the job done.
The Dukes’ return to Bridgeforth Stadium after a three-week road trip was met with a rushing attack that couldn’t get anything going and a defense that was consistently beaten with the deep-ball. It took until the fourth quarter for JMU to break the game open, ultimately spoiling Villanova’s undefeated season and beating the Wildcats 38-24.
“Just like we drew it up,” head coach Curt Cignetti said with a smile.
Trailing 24-17 in the fourth quarter, JMU (6-1, 3-0 CAA) couldn’t find a way to swing the momentum. Then, senior defensive end John Daka forced a fumble, giving the Dukes a chance to stay in the game. Moments later, redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci found redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk for a 26-yard touchdown to level the score.
Villanova junior quarterback Daniel Smith took over and led the Wildcats down the field and into decent field position. Then, junior free safety MJ Hampton picked off Smith and went the distance, completing a 14-point swing that proved to be too much for VU to handle.
“At the end of the day, coach is talking about playing as a starter. So, even as a backup, you gotta be ready to go in there and do your job,” Hampton said. “If you’re in the right place, stuff will happen.”
After a missed field goal by the Wildcats that would’ve pulled them with four points, freshman running back Latrele Palmer broke free for a 69-yard touchdown scamper. In just over six minutes, the Dukes posted 21 points and took a two-touchdown lead until the clock was all zeroes.
“Coach always told me to be ready because anything can happen,” Palmer said. “It was my turn and I showed them what I could do.”
Before today, JMU’s lowest outing in the ground game was 172 yards against West Virginia. Against Villanova, it had 73 yards midway through the fourth quarter, but Palmer’s long touchdown run not only made sure the Dukes were posting over 100 rushing yards for the seventh straight game, but added an interesting dilemma for Cignetti.
Palmer trotted on the field for the fourth time this season, which means the Boyds, Maryland, native is now a game away from losing his redshirt this season. The true freshman has established himself as a useful back and proved to be a game-changer in today’s win.
Following a clinical first drive of the game that saw the Dukes score after nine plays, DiNucci struggled to spark momentum on the offensive side of the ball. The Pitt transfer finished 20-of-32 for 216 yards and 3 touchdowns, most of which came in the fourth quarter.
The Dukes handled adversity just as it did a week ago when it defeated Stony Brook in overtime. In a back-and-forth contest that saw Villanova take a perennial CAA power to the wire, it showed it’ll take more than almost 400 yards through the air for a team to knock off the Dukes. However, despite a lackluster performance, the JMU defense came up big late and turned a potential upset into a statement win.
“That’s something coach Cignetti preaches: always stay poised” redshirt senior defensive lineman Ron’Dell Carter said. “You keep that mentality, it’s pretty easy. We never get down on ourselves … We don’t let nothing get too big for us.”
Now, JMU will head to Williamsburg, Virginia, to face in-state rival William & Mary in the Dukes’ penultimate road game of the season. Kickoff at Zable Stadium is set for 3:30 p.m. Villanova falls to 6-1 (3-1 CAA), but has a bye week before hosting Stony Brook on Oct. 26.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.