Second game of offensive fruition leads JMU into playoffs

November 18, 2018

After starting off hot before going cold for over a month, JMU’s offense has regained its spark at the perfect time and is now making up for its previous blunders. In a two-game stretch against Rhode Island and Towson in which the Dukes totaled 995 yards of offense and an average of 7.26 yards per play, the Dukes put up 86 total points and outscored their opponents by a margin of 38.

“That week [after losing to UNH] was really tough,” head coach Mike Houston said. “There was a lot of hard conversations that week, there were some hard conversations in our staff room. I think the last two weeks are just tremendous confidence builders for this team. That pain, that hurt, it gets your attention.”

What seemed to begin in JMU’s 48-point game against Rhode Island last week continued to grow Saturday, especially in the run game. With 192 yards on the ground against the Rams, the Dukes doubled those numbers against the Tigers and torched their defense for 395 yards — JMU’s highest total of the season.

Entering the week, JMU had zero 100-yard rushers on the season. By the end of the night, the Dukes had not one, not two, but three athletes hit the century mark. Graduate student running back Cardon Johnson — who turned on the jets for the games’ first touchdown on a 76-yard dash — finished the game with 162 net rushing yards, an average of 12.5 per carry.

After losing two seasons to injury in his JMU career, Johnson had been performing lower than his standards in 2018. Averaging 87 yards per game from 2015-17, the career 2,500-plus rusher was averaging only 42.7 yards a game this season.

Not to be outdone by his counterpart, senior Trai Sharp had a long run of 40 yards and racked up 107 on a team-high 15 attempts. Redshirt junior quarterback Ben DiNucci, who admitted he’d abandoned his legs in the middle of the season, was fully fledged in the rushing attack and ran the ball 14 times for 104 yards and three rushing touchdowns.

“Having a good game is a huge confidence builder, not only for myself but I really think it helped the offense,” DiNucci said. “After last week we were like, ‘Alright, we’re starting to click at the right time.’”

Most notable to the change in the offense was the play from the O-line. A younger group compared to years past had been struggling through the middle of the season after facing a stretch of large, athletic defenses, which had hindered the Dukes ability to run. From Weeks 6-9 of this season, JMU averaged only 100.25 rushing yards per game, which would currently rank as second-worst in the CAA.

“Up front, they did a tremendous job,” Johnson said. “They were physical at the point of contact all day long. Shoutout to them, I appreciate them.”

But, just as any story is with a younger, inexperienced group, the big guys up front just needed a little time to find their footing. Their dominance in the trenches against Rhode Island sparked a combination of good play and confidence, which only continued to blossom against Towson.

That improved play wasn’t just in the ground game: The Dukes gave up only three sacks in both of those contests combined. In the previous four weeks, the O-line allowed 15 total sacks.

“Probably the best game our offensive line has played all year,” Houston said. “I’ve got four sophomores and a junior up there now with a full season of experience … that really is it. They’ve progressed so far from that game one against NC State to now.”

The offensive fruition hasn’t only given JMU its final two wins of the season, it’s given the unit as a whole confidence as the Dukes look forward to the postseason. With a weathered and confident offensive line, the resurgence of Johnson and the increased mobility of its mobile quarterback, JMU’s offense is ready for playoff football. It wasn’t pretty for the unit to find its groove, but it’s here just in time to attempt another long run in the FCS tournament.

Contact Blake Pace at breezesports@gmail.com. For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

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