Up 16-6 with under 10 minutes remaining in the game, JMU struggled to put archrival Richmond away. Until that point, the contest that would determine the CAA South Division winner was a slugfest, with both teams’ defenses suffocating their opponent.
That’s when redshirt senior quarterback Cole Johnson stepped up and made the game-defining play as he converted a fourth-and-3 by running 31 yards for a touchdown to make it a 23-6 game and essentially seal the division title for JMU.
With the win, the Dukes remain eligible to receive the CAA’s automatic qualifier for the 2021 FCS Playoffs. If the conference awards Delaware the AQ, JMU would presumably be awarded an at-large bid as the top-ranked team in FCS.
“I thought the team had a lot of energy before the game in the locker room more than I’d ever seen,” Cignetti said. “We took it right to ‘em on defense … [It] was a tremendous effort against that offense who on tape, really had been very potent. So, it was a great team win.”
The Dukes won the coin toss and elected to receive, showing that Cignetti wanted to come out of the gate with an aggressive mentality. Redshirt senior quarterback Cole Johnson and senior running back Percy Agyei-Obese spearheaded a quick first drive that ended with Agyei-Obese punching the ball in from a yard out.
To build on the Dukes’ offensive momentum, the defense began with — and maintained — intensity that forced Richmond redshirt senior quarterback Joe Mancuso to either escape the pocket or take a sack. On the Spiders’ first play from scrimmage, freshman defensive end Mikail Kamara and redshirt senior linebacker Kelvin Azanama combined to sack Mancuso for a seven-yard loss.
JMU continued the impressive start with a 27-yard field goal from redshirt senior kicker Ethan Ratke, which set the CAA record for most career field goals at 65. Up 10-0, the top-ranked Dukes were on the brink of making it a three-possession game in the first quarter.
“Everybody was excited to get back out here, especially having a whole crowd,” Ratke said. “It felt like it was a packed house. Especially against Richmond, it’s just the cherry on top.”
Richmond’s defense found its footing and halted a couple of drives that leveled the momentum. The Spiders got on the board in the second when sophomore kicker Jake Larson nailed a 22-yard attempt to pull UR within seven, but they couldn’t continue to cut into the deficit.
Ratke made another field goal as the clock expired at the end of the second quarter to make it 13-3 JMU heading into the break. After dominating nearly every facet to start the game, the Dukes struggled to string together positive plays in the second quarter, allowing Richmond to remain within arm’s length.
With the Spiders getting the ball to start the second half, Richmond had the opportunity to snatch the momentum and forge a comeback. Senior cornerback Taurus Carroll caught his first career interception as Mancuso launched a deep pass that the Fredericksburg, Virginia, native leaped up to seize.
“That’s a tough kid, he did take a lot of big shots,” redshirt junior linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey. “I thought he would fold earlier than he did but I feel like he fought hard through the whole game.”
JMU couldn’t capitalize on the forced turnover and gave the ball back to Richmond, who proceeded to go on a 6:49 drive that trekked 55 yards in 12 plays and ended in a field goal. For the first time since seven minutes remained in the first quarter, the Spiders were within one score.
What greatly contributed to UR’s stout defense was that multiple players consistently made plays. Six players had five or more tackles, headlined by senior linebacker Tyler Dressler’s 13 total tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Kobie Turner, who was named Third Team All-CAA in 2019, had nine tackles and two sacks.
The Dukes’ offense finally found a spark again after Johnson found freshman wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr. for a 52-yard gain that put the hosts in Richmond territory. However, a holding penalty disrupted the drive and forced the Dukes to take a field goal and bump its lead to 16-6.
After a missed 50-yard field goal from Larson, JMU was in the driver’s seat to finish out the game. With over 14 minutes left and up 10, the Dukes needed to find a way to put the contest to bed.
On fourth down with just under 10 minutes left in the game, Johnson dropped back for a quick pass play. The pocket collapsed, forcing the Virginia Beach, Virginia, native to step up and break the line of scrimmage. With acres of space and two players that could take him down, Johnson evaded both attempts and scampered into the end zone to make it 23-6 and put JMU on the path to victory.
“It was amazing honestly. He ran it down the field and he looked like a running back out there,” Agyei-Obese said. “He was determined to get into that end zone, too. He broke a couple tackles and he did what he needed to do.”
Johnson finished the day 16 of 25 for 235 yards and one touchdown. He was helped by Agyei-Obese’s 78 rushing yards and single score and Wells Jr.’s 92 yards on four catches.
Mancuso struggled against a ferocious JMU defense, showcased in him going 9 of 24 for 125 yards and one interception. Redshirt sophomore running back Aaron Dykes added 36 yards on the ground, while graduate student tight end John Fitzgerald had four catches for 42 yards.
JMU and Richmond now wait for Sunday’s FCS Playoff Selection Show at 11:30 a.m. on ESPNU to see what their respective playoff fates are. The top-ranked Dukes improve to 5-0 (3-0 CAA), while Richmond suffers its first loss of the year and drops to 3-1 (3-1 CAA).
“It’s playoff time,” Cignetti said.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.