Underdog VMI rallied from a 21-3 halftime deficit to get within a touchdown of top-ranked JMU in the final seconds, but the Dukes recovered a last-ditch onside kick attempt to preserve a 31-24 win on Saturday in the first round of the 2021 FCS playoffs.
The Keydets (6-2) were able to move the ball surprisingly well against JMU’s top-ranked defense, which had come into the game allowing 175.6 yards per game, but surrendered 403 to VMI, for whom the issue would be turnovers.
VMI turned the ball over three times on the afternoon, the biggest being an interception thrown by freshman quarterback Seth Morgan in the JMU end zone on the Keydets’ opening offensive possession.
“The difference in the game was the turnover battle, which JMU won,” VMI coach Scott Wachenheim said.
JMU (6-0) also hit big with big plays – the biggest being a 99-yard first quarter TD run by Dukes’ tailback Jawon Hamilton.
A career-best 49-yard field goal from Jerry Rice would get VMI back to 7-3, but James Madison took control in the second quarter, on a 2-yard TD run by Percy Agyei-Obese and a 10-yard TD pass from Cole Johnson to Kris Thornton, a former VMI player who left the program to walk on at JMU in 2019.
VMI got back to 21-10 with a 1-yard Seth Morgan run on fourth-and-goal at the 6:29 mark of the third quarter.
The Keydets then tried a surprise onside kick on the next play, and the apparent recovery was wiped out when it was ruled that a VMI player had made illegal contact with a JMU blocker.
The Dukes answered back with another big play – a 62-yard strike from Johnson to Antwane Wells that made it 28-10 JMU with 3:20 to go in the third.
VMI would not go away. Jakob Herres capped an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive with a 11-yard TD catch that made it 28-17 with 13:43 to go in the game.
JMU was able to run clock on their next three possessions, burning 9:36 on drives that ended in a punt, an INT in the VMI end zone and an Ethan Ratke 32-yard field goal, that coming with 2:18 to go to make it 31-17 Dukes.
The Keydets offense would get a score on what turned out to be its final drive of the season – a 12-play, 75-yard march that ended with a TD pass from Morgan to Max Brimigion with nine seconds left.
VMI attempted another onside kick, and the ball was on the turf and up for grabs, but it was recovered by JMU, which was able to run out the clock from there.
“I’m very proud of the VMI football team,” Wachenheim said. “We fought, and we never said die. We competed to the very end. James Madison is a tremendous football team.”
Morgan completed 30 of his 50 pass attempts for 286 yards and two touchdowns, with three passes intercepted.
Herres caught 13 passes on 18 targets for 171 yards and a touchdown.
The output gave Herres his fifth straight 100-yard receiving game and 12th of his career. The fourth quarter TD catch was the 21st touchdown reception of his VMI career, moving him past Mark Stock’s all-time program record of 20 from 1984-88.
JMU rolled up 509 yards of total offense, getting 305 on the ground – with Hamilton (171 yards on 19 carries) and Agyei-Obese (110 yards) each going over the 100-yard mark.
VMI sophomore linebacker Stone Snyder, who was named the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year earlier this week, finished with a game-high 12 tackles.
Seniors Connor Riddle and A.J. Smith finished with 11 tackles apiece, and sophomore Josh Sarratt ended up with nine.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” Wachenheim said. “They fought hard, the coaches kept fighting ,and we were there until the end.”
Story by Chris Graham