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

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-ever playoff game last week against VMI, with four catches for 132 yards and a touchdown.

On Sunday evening, in the FCS quarterfinals against visiting North Dakota at Bridgeforth Stadium, Wells one-upped 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 national semifinals with a 34-21 victory.

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

Top-ranked JMU (7-0) will now travel to face fourth-ranked Sam Houston State (8-0) in Saturday’s semifinals. Sam Houston State 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 title game at the end of the 2016, 2017 and 2019 seasons. They won the 2016 title.

JMU on Sunday executed two virtually picture-perfect scoring drives back to back, midway through the first quarter and early in the second quarter.

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

The Dukes pressed shuffle on 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 first play of the drive.

Quarterback Cole 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, helping set up a barreling 3-yard touchdown run by Agyei-Obese. JMU led 10-7 with 30 seconds left in the opening quarter.

A run-predominant UND (5-2) offense held to zero net rushing yards in the first quarter came alive with a 45-yard run by standout back Otis Weah on the first play of the second quarter. 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 later on the drive Johnson hit on a deep ball to Wells, for 38 yards, to the UND 6. Agyei-Obese again finished off 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 own 18. And with some creative play-calling, 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 field goal from 31 yards out as the first half expired.

It was Wells that then 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.

Early in the fourth quarter, on a third down 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 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.

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

wepps@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6442

Twitter: @wayneeppsjr

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