For the second time in two playoff games, James Madison’s defense thwarted its opposition’s first series with an interception.
On Sunday, Dukes linebacker Kelvin Azanama snagged one out of the air when safety Que Reid delivered a jarring hit to rattle free what looked like would be a completed pass from North Dakota quarterback Tommy Schuster to tight end Adam Zavalney. Reid’s blow sent the football into flight and Azanama, alertly following the play, was there to intercept it and return it 12 yards.
That setup a field goal, which provided JMU an initial lead in its 34-21 victory in the national quarterfinals.
“With the turnovers, that’s always a goal of ours,” JMU linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey said, “to get the ball back to the offense. And I think we did a good job of that today.”
Azanama’s pick came one play after he was flagged for a pass interference penalty on third down, so not only did he halt the Fighting Hawks’ first bit of success, but he atoned for his own mistake.
“It was great for us, and great for his confidence,” Tucker-Dorsey said, “after getting a bad play like that on the first one and then making right up for it. That was really big for him and I’m really happy for him because that’s the first pick for [a linebacker] in a while, so it definitely helped the confidence of the defense.”
JMU got its second interception from senior cornerback Wesley McCormick in the second quarter when McCormick perfectly jumped a screen pass and appeared destined for the end zone with an open field in front of him. But, he sank to the ground when he pulled his groin within the first few strides of his return.
That was McCormick’s second interception in as many weeks. In the Dukes’ opening-round win against VMI, he stopped the Keydets from scoring on their first series when he outdueled All-American wide receiver Jakob Herres for a fade pass in the end zone.
Those strong defensive starts have carried throughout the rest of their playoff triumphs to this point. JMU is intercepting passes at an increased rate this postseason. The Dukes have five in two playoff wins over VMI and North Dakota, which is up from the five they had across five regular-season games.
- James Madison’s win over North Dakota was the Dukes’ 11th straight win in a home playoff game. That streak dates back to 2016.
- The victory also pushed JMU to 5-2 against teams from the Missouri Valley Football Conference since the 2016 season.
- Dukes wide receiver Antwane Wells’ 143 receiving yards was the fourth-most by a JMU receiver in its playoff history.
North Dakota coach Bubba Schweigert said even though the Fighting Hawks had an idea the Dukes would feature Wells Jr., it was difficult to stop him.
Wells caught passes for long gains of 19 yards, 38 yards and 63 yards in the victory. His 63-yard reception went for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
“We knew he was going to be targeted deep coming into the game,” Schweigert said. “One was a double-move in the first half that setup a score and then they went big personnel [later in the game]. But there’s an advantage when you’re ahead.
“You can take some shots in games and try to end games, but they’re up two scores and had us in a short-yardage situation. We have to load up the box and try to get a stop if they’re going to run the football and then they just go one-on-one and [Wells Jr.] was able to make the play. So, very talented receiver and we knew coming in that he’s talented and that we’d have to hold up to him at some point whether we were in zone or man.”
- While McCormick went down with injury Sunday, the Dukes did benefit from the return of senior cornerback Greg Ross, who missed the previous two games with injury. Ross, a transfer from North Carolina, had a tackle and a pass breakup in the win.