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Wells' big night helps propel James Madison to 34-21 win over North Dakota, back to FCS semifinals
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Wells' big night helps propel James Madison to 34-21 win over North Dakota, back to FCS semifinals

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HARRISONBURG — James Madison’s Antwane Wells Jr. was ready for his encore. And he made it even better than his playoff debut.

Wells, a freshman wide receiver and former Highland Springs standout, had an early career day in his first playoff game last week against VMI, with four catches for 132 yards and a touchdown.

On Sunday evening, in the quarterfinals against visiting North Dakota at Bridgeforth Stadium, Wells surpassed himself. He caught a career-high seven balls for a career-high 143 yards. He also recorded two touchdowns in a game for the first time in his career, helping propel the Dukes to the FCS semifinals with a 34-21 victory.

JMU quarterback Cole Johnson said he knew, all the way back in the fall, that Wells was going to be special. He’s proving Johnson right.

“He's a warrior, he's very competitive, he's got a lot of talent,” coach Curt Cignetti said of Wells.

Top-ranked JMU (7-0) will now travel to face fourth-ranked Sam Houston (8-0) in Saturday’s semifinals. Sam Houston beat North Dakota State 24-20 Sunday.

The Dukes are in the national semifinals for the fourth time in the last five seasons. They made the national final at the end of the 2016, 2017 and 2019 seasons. They won the 2016 title.

The speedy Wells, 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, has been an emerging big-play threat for JMU. Sunday’s game for him included receptions of 19, 38 and 63 yards.

UND’s blitz-heavy defense left one-on-one opportunities available for Wells and Fighting Hawk defenders. Well’s ability to maneuver through one-on-one coverage was what made Johnson believe the receiver was going to be special months ago.

After the “fall ball” practice period, Johnson and Wells continued to sharpen their connection in Richmond. Johnson, a Virginia Beach native, drove up to Richmond over winter break to work with quarterback trainer Malcolm Bell. And Wells stopped by to catch passes.

“And it's really nice that we've been able to develop that [connection] all season,” Johnson said.

On Sunday against UND, JMU executed two virtually perfect scoring drives back to back, midway through the first quarter and early in the second quarter, to take an early advantage.

The run game carried the first touchdown drive, and one of the big plays to Wells helped lead to the second.

The Dukes shuffled their running back rotation on the initial touchdown drive, mixing in starter Percy Agyei-Obese, Latrele Palmer and Solomon Vanhorse. Agyei-Obese set the tone, with a 14-yard run on the drive’s first play.

Johnson connected with Kris Thornton to put JMU in UND territory with a 12-yard pickup to the Fighting Hawks’ 39 yard line.

The Dukes then executed seven runs in a row. Vanhorse broke open an 18-yard gain to the UND 18, to help set up a barreling 3-yard touchdown run by Agyei-Obese. JMU led 10-0 with 30 seconds left in the opening quarter.

A run-predominant offense for UND (5-2) limited to zero net rushing yards in the first quarter came alive to start the second quarter with a 45-yard run by standout back Otis Weah on the first play of the period. That drive ended in a 5-yard Weah touchdown.

But JMU responded with its second smooth touchdown drive. Johnson dumped a pass off to Vanhorse, who sprinted for a 15-yard gain, and Johnson later hit on a deep ball to Wells for 38 yards to the UND 6. Agyei-Obese again finished that drive, with a 6-yard run, to make it 17-7 JMU with 10:18 left before the half.

A JMU mistake helped set up a UND touchdown later in the quarter. From their punt formation, the Fighting Hawks drew the Dukes offside from their 18. Some creative play calling then contributed to the drive, including a snap to quarterback Quincy Vaughn — who ran some designed quarterback runs for the Fighting Hawks on Sunday — followed by a pair of pitches that put the ball in the hands of starting quarterback Tommy Schuster, who completed a pass to Adam Zavalney for 27 yards.

Weah completed the drive, fighting his way into the end zone for a 10-yard gain to cut it to 17-14.

JMU got an Ethan Ratke (Atlee) field goal from 31 yards out as the first half expired.

Wells helped the Dukes put the game away in the second half. Midway through the third quarter, Johnson hit Wells for a gain of 10 yards before finding him again. Wells spun off an attempted tackle and into the end zone for a 19-yard score to make it 27-14 JMU.

“He's a tough, physical guy,” Cignetti said of Wells.

Early in the fourth quarter, on a third down and 6 from the JMU 37, Johnson found Wells down the left sideline and dropped the ball over his shoulder for the 63-yard completion and touchdown to push it to 34-14.

UND had loaded the box to try to stop the run, and Wells outran the UND cornerback in the one-on-one outside coverage.

“Very talented receiver,” UND coach Bubba Schweigert said of Wells. “We knew coming in that he's talented and we were going to have to hold up to him.”

UND followed with its first touchdown since the second quarter, a 4-yard run from Luke Skokna. But JMU’s Jamir Hudson recovered the ensuing onside kick, and JMU burned the final 6:37 off the clock.

JMU outgained UND 468 to 334 overall, including 217 to 121 on the ground. And after Cignetti was unhappy with the second-half outing against VMI in the playoff first round last week, particularly penalties that helped let the Keydets back in, the Dukes committed no penalties after halftime Sunday.

Cignetti said the key word for the group this week was “finish.”

"I'm really proud of the team, the way they played in the second half and fourth quarter,” Cignetti said.

The Dukes will travel to face the Bearkats (8-0) in Huntsville, Texas, by virtue of the playoff bracket seeding, with Sam Houston No. 2 overall and JMU No. 3.

JMU and Sam Houston have faced each other just once, a 65-7 victory at home in the quarterfinals of the 2016 playoffs, part of a run that ended in a national title.

Johnson was a freshman then, who got a bit of action in the game for starter Bryan Schor.

Now he has the reigns, and will try to steer the Dukes back to Frisco, Texas, to another national title game.

"It's pretty crazy how far we've come, I think just as a culture here at JMU,” Johnson said. “I think this is kind of the expectation now, to make it to the semifinals and national championship games."

Notes: JMU cornerback Wesley McCormick left the game after a second-quarter interception of Schuster Sunday. Cignetti said McCormick had been nursing a groin injury, and tweaked it on the interception. The Dukes will know more about the injury on Monday. 

wepps@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6442

Twitter: @wayneeppsjr

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