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Dukes rally past Weber State into the FCS semifinals

Riley Stapleton

HARRISONBURG — The streak is still alive.

James Madison University pulled off an improbable comeback on Friday night at Bridgeforth Stadium to defeat Weber State University, 31-28, in the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals. Redshirt freshman kicker Ethan Ratke’s 46-yard field goal as time expired gave the Dukes their 25th straight victory. JMU rallied from 8 points down in the final three minutes to advance to their second straight FCS semifinals.

“I just knew I was going to hit it as hard as I could and just remember everything I’ve worked for to get here,” Ratke said of his game-winning field goal.

Ratke’s field goal was a career-high and set a JMU record for longest field goal in the playoffs.

He was one of many players to make big plays down the stretch for jMU.

Bryan Schor

It was the first time the Dukes had trailed in the fourth quarter all season. JMU’s backs were against the wall, trailing 28-20 with just 3:14 left in the game.

JMU junior Marcus Marshall returned the kickoff 30 yards and a 5-yard penalty on Weber State moved the ball to the JMU 48-yard line.

“Everybody kind of got on their blocks,” Marshall said of the return. “I feel like I should have broke it, but someone got my leg. That got us in good field position and enabled us to go down and do what we did. So that was good.”

The Dukes (13-0) needed only four plays to capitalize on the field position. JMU senior quarterback Bryan Schor connected with Ish Hyman for 11 yards to start the drive.

Three plays later Schor threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Riley Stapleton, and then running back Trai Sharp scored on the 2-point conversion to tie the game at 28 with 2:08 left.

JMU’s defense entered the quarterfinals allowing just 8.8 points per game. They had not given up more than 14 points in a game all season, but when it matted the most they came up big against Weber State.

The Dukes forced a three-and-out to give the ball back to the offense with 1:06 left in the game.

“We all brought the defense together and we were just like we got to make the stop right here,” JMU senior linebacker Brandon Hereford said of Weber State’s last drive. “If we actually want to win this, if we want to keep playing, if we want to take care of the goals that we want to take care of we got to get this stop right here. Everybody’s like OK, let’s do this. We buckled down and did what we had to do.”

The JMU offense began the ensuing possession at the JMU 31-yard line. Schor said he didn’t have to say much to the players in the huddle to start the drive.

“I just looked at the guys and said ‘OK, here’s our shot. Let’s go win this,'” Schor said. “Credit to our guys for living in the moment and not letting the moment be too big for them. I felt really confident, and I could tell that they were really confident and ready to play.”

The Dukes drove 39 yards on seven plays, including a 17-yard shovel pass from Schor to Terrence Alls and a 12-yard pass from Schor to Stapleton.

Schor connected one last time to Stapleton for 15 yards to move the ball to the 29-yard line and the rest was on the foot of Ratke.

“For Ethan (Ratke) to walk out there and hit a career-long field goal as time expired to win it — that’s kind of a storybook ending,” JMU head football coach Mike Houston said. “What an incredible effort.”

The players ran onto the field to celebrate after the kick went through the uprights.

“It was the craziest moment I’ve ever been a part of,” Hereford said. “A great moment of enjoyment and happiness.”

In a sign of things to come, the Dukes gave up a touchdown in the first quarter for the first time all season. Weber State’s Xequille Harry intercepted a pass by Schor and returned it to the JMU 4, to set-up a 1-yard touchdown run by Kevin Smith for a 7-0 lead for the Wildcats.

JMU tied the game with 10:38 left in the opening quarter on a 15-yard touchdown run by Marshall. A 35-yard field goal by Ratke gave the Dukes a 10-7 lead at the half.

Weber State (11-3) scored the only points of the third quarter on an 81-yard pass from Stefan Cantwell to Smith for a 14-10 edge.

The two teams went back and forth throughout the fourth quarter.

“That Weber State football team is as good a football team or one of the better football teams that I’ve ever faced at the FCS level,” Houston said. “And I think they’re extremely well coached, very composed, just played with such physicality and intensity.”

Cantwell threw for 238 yards on 12-for-30 passing and two touchdowns. Smith had 45 rushing yards and 85 receiving yards and two scores for the Wildcats.

Marshall led JMU’s rushing attack with 128 yards on 14 carries and two touchdowns. Schor, who broke JMU’s career passing yards record during the game, threw for 359 yards on 21-for-45 passing and one touchdown.

Stapleton had eight receptions for 189 yards and one touchdown, while Alls had 117 yards on six catches.

JMU also overcame several injuries. JMU starting senior tight end and 2014 Strasburg graduate Jonathan Kloosterman suffered an injury early in the game and did not return. JMU had two freshman playing on the offensive line during the game. JMU redshirt senior and 2013 Millbrook graduate A.J. Bolden suffered a season-ending injury this past week and was replaced in the starting lineup by redshirt freshman Zaire Bethea. During the game, redshirt sophomore Jahee Jackson suffered an injury and did not return. He was replaced by true freshman Liam Fornadel.

The Dukes will host South Dakota State at 4p.m, Saturday in the FCS semifinals. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

Houston said that the quarterfinal win is something the players will never forget.

“Those kids will never forget that game,” Houston said. “I’ll never forget that game. You’ll always remember the way you won that game, because it’s so dramatic there at the end. I hope they kept the cameras on for the celebration, because those are things that life-long memories are made of. And these kids will talk about this 20 years from now when they come back for a reunion — just remember the walk-off kick that Ratke made against Weber State in the quarterfinals. So it’s a special night.”

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