With just under two minutes remaining in the first quarter against West Virginia, JMU football crossed off some firsts — the first trip to the red zone, the first touchdown of the game and the first score of the season.
But all of those became an afterthought to redshirt freshman running back Solomon Vanhorse.
The former walk-on went nearly untouched as he took redshirt senior quarterback Ben DiNucci’s handoff nine yards to the end zone. It was Vanhorse’s first score since Nov. 17, 2017 when he was a senior in high school.
“It was, it was crazy — it's way different than high school,” Vanhorse said. “I just heard the noise and I just wanted to celebrate with my brothers.”
In the Dukes’ opening game of the 2019 season, the running game thrived on both sides of the ball. The JMU running backs found success on the ground, with all four rushers getting to double digits in yards gained.
On the defensive front, West Virginia struggled to get anything started against JMU’s defensive line. The Mountaineers managed only 34 yards against JMU’s front compared to the 172 yards the Dukes were able to rack up against them.
“It just helped us know that they was going to be one dimensional — just knowing that they had to go to the air,” redshirt senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway said. “If you can't stop the run, then they have their whole playbook, so that’s the one thing you gotta harp on.”
JMU didn’t allow a run over five yards during the contest, keeping the average carry to just 1.4 yards for the Mountaineer backs. Toward the end of fall camp, JMU head coach Curt Cignetti said his rush defense needed to tighten up its coverage, and against WVU, the unit did just that, stymying the Mountaineers through all four quarters.
“I thought we played really well on defense, you know,” Cignetti said. “We stuffed the run and did a great job [and] hit quarterback a lot early. We just needed to get a little bit more going on offense.”
The attack in the air was limited for the Dukes as DiNucci and the offense managed only 156 yards off 13 receptions. With West Virginia’s defense having control of the passing game, the Dukes’ rushers were given their opportunity. JMU had all four rushers — six including DiNucci and redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Polk — average over two yards per carry.
“I was glad to see everybody, you know, get involved,” Cignetti said. “[Freshman running back] Austin [Douglas] and Solomon gave us a little something when they came in. I wasn't shocked. I mean, they've been doing that all camp, and then we got [redshirt junior running back] Jawon [Hamilton] in there a little bit to get him going.”
Vanhorse, Hamilton and junior running back Percy Agyei-Obese saw the most carries for the Dukes out of the backfield, with each rushing at least eight times and gaining 25 or more yards — Vanhorse led all rushers with 12 carries and 55 yards.
The trio of backs, paired with DiNucci’s ability to scramble and the emerging freshman talent in Douglas, helped create a backfield that West Virginia struggled to control. Even when it wasn’t the running backs who were taking the ball, DiNucci held his own on the ground, running for 36 yards off 14 attempts.
“When someone makes a big play, the next person comes in and they make a big play,” Vanhorse said on the importance of having multiple running backs. “It just keeps the defense on their toes ’cause they never know what's gonna happen and what we're going to do, so they can't stop [us] — it's a four-headed monster back there.”
The plethora of backs in JMU’s locker room will continue to prove beneficial as the season progresses. While most of them are just now starting to see significant playing time, JMU’s running backs — with the exception of Douglas — all sat behind a trio of rushers last year who exemplified what it meant to be a college football player.
Cardon Johnson, Marcus Marshall and Trai Sharp each contributed throughout their careers in Harrisonburg, with the three combining for 6,040 rushing yards and 64 total touchdowns. While players like Vanhorse, Hamilton and Agyei-Obese are now looking to make their own impact on the purple and gold, the lessons from their predecessors will help them reach their success.
“We have some big expectations from Marcus, Trai and Cardon,” Vanhorse said. “They always taught us to keep our head straight and … never get too high, never be too low — just be right there and always stay in the game … They taught us to be the best.”
With West Virginia now over, the Dukes are looking forward to their matchup against Saint Francis (PA) this weekend. They return to Bridgeforth searching for their first win of the season, something the running backs and defensive line will play a key role in.
Contact Catie Harper at email@example.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.