It was the same type of moxie that spurred their season forward, according to their coach.
When frustration could’ve sent James Madison into the locker room at halftime without anything to show for its last series of the opening 30 minutes, the Dukes didn’t let their issues impact them negatively.
“That’s kind of a testament to our resiliency as a team,” first-year JMU coach Curt Cignetti said after the host Dukes’ 30-14 win over Weber State in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs on Saturday night. “I think we have become a team that’s been able to overcome a number of different challenges throughout the season.”
After Brandon Polk’s 60-yard kickoff return gave the Dukes a first-and-10 from the Weber State 36 with 1:11 to play in the half, JMU took two delay-of-game penalties and a holding penalty to push itself back into a fourth-and-30 to nearly blow an opportunity to score before the half.
Cignetti sent kicker Ethan Ratke out for a long field-goal attempt, and it fell well short. But because Weber State coach Jay Hill called a timeout, Cignetti was able to re-consider and instead sent the offense to return to the field and attempt a Hail Mary pass.
It worked as quarterback Ben DiNucci connected with wide receiver Riley Stapleton for a 34-yard touchdown and a 24-7 halftime lead.
“To keep our poise and make that play in that particular moment was huge in this game,” Cignetti said. “And a real credit to the guys that made it happen. To be able to go in the locker room with that extra score lead was big.”
Offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery said: “The one right at the end of the half was the one that probably put the game away. I know the game wasn’t over yet, but it put us up by 17.”
Cignetti said he’s seen that type of ability from his players all fall and it’s one of the reasons why JMU is headed to Frisco, Texas, for the Jan. 11 FCS national championship game against North Dakota State.
The Dukes coach pointed to their mid-October come-from-behind win over Villanova as the moment he thought they were capable of playing for a national title.
“Fourth quarter of Villanova I think was a very big time in this season,” Cignetti said. “They were undefeated. They had a lead. They had momentum.
“I think they were driving, and first play of the fourth quarter [defensive end] John Daka had a 7-yard [tackle for loss], stripped the ball and we had four turnovers, an interception for a touchdown and the [tackles for loss] and sacks just started multiplying after that. The turnover ratio went way up in our favor and I think we started to play at another level after that.
“And I think the team showed great resiliency, kept their poise against a good football team when things weren’t going real great. We turned it around when we had to. There was no panic and or things like that, so I thought that was a key time in the season.”
• The win for JMU was its 14th straight, which maintains the nation’s second-longest winning streak only to North Dakota State.
• It’ll be the fourth title game appearance ever, and third in the last four years, for the Dukes. JMU won the national title in 2004 and 2016, and lost the championship game in 2017.
• Against Weber State, the Dukes jumped out to 17-0 edge early in the second quarter and through each team’s first three possessions. On those six series, JMU’s defense forced three straight three-and-outs while the offense racked up 199 total yards and 14 first downs en route to scoring 17 points. “We got off to such a slow start that the damage was done in the first quarter,” Weber State coach Jay Hill said. “You can’t get down 17-0 to these guys, in this stadium and think that’s any recipe for success.”
• Dukes senior cornerback Rashad Robinson, who had a key pass breakup on the second play of the game, said the quick start for the defense was important. “We kind of harped on it,” Robinson said. “But for some reason our defense tends to get on a slow start before we get going, so it was good to see the whole defense get three straight three-and-outs and put our offense in good field position.”
• JMU defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman said he used some different fronts against Weber State that the Dukes haven’t shown often before Saturday. Occasionally JMU used Ron’Dell Carter in a standup position on the line of scrimmage. Hetherman said: “We we’re trying to figure out where they’d slide to and whether they’d slide to [John] Daka or Carter and I thought that worked well for us early. We threw a pressure in there and I think that got ‘em off track.”
• Hetherman, who coached against Weber State in last year’s quarterfinal when he held the same role at Maine, said he did change some of the game plan going into Saturday’s semifinal. He said JMU stuck mostly in a four-down defense whereas Maine used mainly a three-down front against Weber last year. “But having a game film from this scheme last year in the playoffs and how they tried to attack it,” Hetherman said, “our guys got to see what splits they would use, what type of rub routes they would use and our guys played off of that. I think they understood what concepts were coming.”
• Cignetti said senior linebacker Dimitri Holloway suffered an ankle sprain Saturday, “but should be fine” and added that Holloway “could’ve played in the second half.” Holloway left the game late in the first half and did not return against the Wildcats.
• Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey, a redshirt sophomore linebacker, filled in for Holloway. Tucker-Dorsey ended up with five tackles, tied for the most with Robinson on the team. Tucker-Dorsey said: “I have full confidence in myself and my guys have the same thing in me. When I get in, there’s no difference and they feel like there’s Dimitri in there.”
• Quarterback Ben DiNucci said his job was easy Saturday because of his teammates. DiNucci led JMU with 255 passing yards, 62 rushing yards and accounted for three total touchdowns. “We needed Riley tonight,” DiNucci said. “Run game got going late and the guys up front did a heck of a job, but I think as a defensive coordinator that it’s probably pretty hard to game plan for us.”
• Freshman running back Latrele Palmer ran 53 yards on 12 carries in his first action since the Dukes’ Nov. 9 win against New Hampshire. He missed the previous four games with an ankle injury.
• Cignetti said coaches and players will have off this coming week. He said coaches will return Sunday and players will be back Dec. 30 in preparation for North Dakota State.