Fractured, out-of-sync and unusual. Those are some ways to describe JMU’s play for a large portion of today’s CAA opener, but after head coach Curt Cignetti made a change at quarterback, a fire was ignited and the Dukes clawed their way back from a 14-point deficit to win 20-17.
After falling behind 17-3 in the first half, JMU rattled 17 unanswered points to maintain its undefeated record and top spot in the STATS FCS poll. It also has yet to lose at Rhodes Stadium as the Dukes boast a 3-0 record at Elon.
“That was a real gut check, that says a lot about our team,” Cignetti said. “That’s a great win right there. Hats off to Elon for the way they played, but we played well in the second half.”
In the third quarter, Cignetti replaced redshirt senior quarterback Cole Johnson with redshirt junior Gage Moloney. Johnson went 9 of 17 for 107 yards and one interception and couldn’t lead the offense to find the end zone while Elon had raced to a two-possession lead.
JMU’s first four drives ended with punts, while Elon notched a field goal in its first possession and scored on a 31-yard pass from freshman quarterback JR Martin to junior wide receiver Bryson Daughtry in its third drive to make it 10-0.
Midway through the second quarter, redshirt senior kicker Ethan Ratke got the Dukes on the board with a 34-yard field goal. Neither team would score until six seconds left in the half when Elon redshirt freshman running back McKinley Witherspoon punched it in from a yard out. Heading into the locker room, top-ranked JMU trailed Elon 17-3.
The running back duo of junior Jaylan Thomas and Witherspoon dented JMU’s defensive line and often was able to gain more yards after contact on numerous plays. The two ended the game combined for 85 yards but had 13 in the second half — an indication of how the two halves went for both teams.
Down two scores and the offense stalling, the change under center seemed to light a fire for the Dukes. Moloney’s first play resulted in a fumble by senior running back Percy Agyei-Obese, but that’d be the last time JMU found itself on the unlucky end of a possession.
“Coach tells you everyone’s one play away at every position, so the backup needs to be ready at any point,” Moloney said. “I felt I was well prepared. I thought I’d been playing well in camp and practices coming forward. I was waiting for my opportunity.”
Ratke made his fifth field goal of the season to make it an 11-point game, but as the offense started to find its mojo, the Dukes’ defense looked a step faster and was able to swarm the field and almost completely halt Elon’s momentum in the second half.
In the last two quarters, Elon punted the ball four times and had two turnovers. Martin had little time in the pocket to go through his progressions, giving the offense more time to mount a comeback. He finished 12 of 26 for 129 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Senior defensive lineman Mike Greene credited the lone interception — picked off by senior cornerback Wesley McCormick — as a significant moment in the game where momentum swung back in the visitors’ direction. Greene himself played a big role in the second-half surge, earning 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack over the course of the game.
“The whole second half, we just came together as a whole team,” Greene said. “We were flying around, having energy. That really was the whole turning point in the second half in general.”
Less than three minutes into the fourth quarter, Moloney found freshman wide receiver Antwane Wells Jr. in the bottom corner of the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown to make it 17-13. Despite still trailing by four, it felt it’d become JMU’s game to lose as the Dukes’ offense began to click and maintain drives.
JMU took its first lead of the game with 7:34 remaining as Agyei-Obese rumbled in from eight yards to make it 20-17. The Dukes wouldn’t turn back and managed the clock to dwindle down to zeroes.
Elon drops to 1-2 (0-1 CAA) and will host Richmond on Saturday. JMU returns to Harrisonburg to play William & Mary on the same day, with kickoff set for 4 p.m.
Contact Noah Ziegler at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.