Home Air Force runs over, through JMU, defeats Dukes in Armed Forces Bowl, 31-21

Air Force runs over, through JMU, defeats Dukes in Armed Forces Bowl, 31-21

Scott Ratcliffe
jmu football
(© Steve Heap – shutterstock)

As impressive as James Madison‘s rush defense was throughout the regular season, fullback Emmanuel Michel and the Air Force backfield had an absolute field day against the Dukes in Saturday’s Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in El Paso.

Michel, who was named Most Valuable Player afterwards, posted career-highs of 35 carries and 207 yards, and scored a pair of touchdowns en route to a 31-21 Falcons victory, marking the academy’s fifth-consecutive bowl win.

The Air Force triple-option attack wound up registering an eye-popping 351 yards and three touchdowns on 63 carries, as the Dukes saw their incredible season end with a record of 11-2. The Falcons (9-4) snapped a four-game losing streak in the process.

“I’m frustrated at the loss, I’m proud of the team, aggravated at our execution at times, and consistency of execution, really,” said JMU acting head coach Damian Wroblewski, filling in for Curt Cignetti, who departed for Indiana along with his offensive and defensive coordinator earlier this month. “But I’m also so thankful and joyful that I got to spend three weeks leading these guys. It has been a joy as their coach, and to watch them, and I hope they’re all better men after this three weeks.”

JMU will turn to newly signed head coach Bob Chesney from Holy Cross to lead the program into the future beginning next fall. Chesney was on the sidelines in El Paso Saturday getting an up-close look at what he will be inheriting, and what he witnessed was a convincing, monumental performance from the other team’s leading rusher.

Michel set the tone with his first touch of the day, racing 54 yards up the gut on Air Force’s first offensive snap. When he picked up 6 more yards on the following play, he had nearly matched the JMU defense’s nation-leading average of rushing yards allowed (61.5 per game) on just his first two carries.

A few plays later, Michel put the game’s first points on the scoreboard with a 1-yard plunge to make it 7-0 with 8:11 left in the opening quarter. The Falcons gained 86 yards on the drive — all on the ground — with Michel rushing five times himself for 66 yards and the score.

JMU quarterback Jordan McCloud, the Sun Belt Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year, answered with a 7-play, 75-yard scoring march, completing an 18-yard toss to Phoenix Sproles to tie the game at 7-7 with 5:00 on the first-quarter clock.

Following an Air Force punt, McCloud had the Dukes back on the move and approaching the red zone, but he was pressured by a pair of pass-rushers in blue and tossed an interception at the 28-yard line.

The Falcons got another huge chunk of yardage on the ensuing possession, as John Lee Eldridge III took an option pitch and hustled 51 yards inside the JMU 5-yard line. Michel put the exclamation point on the drive with another 1-yard TD trot, and Air Force grabbed a 14-7 lead with 7:51 left in the first half.

“I’ve been out for a little bit and didn’t finish the back half of the season like I wanted to,” Michel said after the game. “Finally got healthy and just wanted to come out and make a statement. It was my last time wearing the blue, and just wanted to go out for this team, go out for these seniors.”

The teams traded punts on the next five possessions until the Falcons got it back with 38 ticks showing with the pigskin resting at the Dukes’ 46-yard line.

It only took two plays for Air Force quarterback Zac Larrier to get his team back on the scoreboard, catching the JMU defense off-guard with just his only completion of the half — a 42-yard strike to Jared Roznos for six, and the Dukes went into halftime staring at a 14-point deficit. The Falcons rushed for 179 yards in the half.

The JMU defense redeemed itself with a huge fourth-down stop at midfield to begin the second half, which led to a 6-yard pass from McCloud to Kaelon Black, and the Dukes were right back in the contest, trailing 21-14 with still 9:11 to go in the third quarter. McCloud set up the score with back-to-back first-down passes to his top two targets — one for 18 yards to Elijah Sarratt, the next for 26 yards to Reggie Brown down the sideline.

Michel responded with another key pickup on Air Force’s next drive, this time for 32 yards to the JMU 1-yard line, and Larrier snuck it in on the next snap to extend the lead back to 14 with 4:07 left in the third.

After a JMU three-and-out, the Falcons essentially put the game away with a 17-play, 49-yard march that took 9:45 off the clock, as Matthew Dapore connected on a 26-yard field goal to make it 31-14 with 8:20 remaining.

The Dukes managed to put together one final scoring drive that was capped by another TD toss from McCloud to Sproles, but the possession lasted 5:05 and didn’t leave JMU with much time to try and pull off a miracle finish. The ensuing onside kick was batted out of bounds by an Air Force player, and the Falcons drained the remaining 3:10 off of the clock and concluded their season in victory formation.

McCloud threw for 257 yards and the 3 touchdowns, completing 20 of his 33 passes in what will likely be his final game in a Dukes uniform after putting his name in the transfer portal prior to the bowl game, but electing to participate in the contest. Sarratt led all receivers with 115 yards on 8 grabs, while Sproles added 55 yards and the two touchdowns on his 5 receptions.

McCloud was sacked 4 times and finished with negative-35 yards rushing, as the Falcons’ defense recorded 9 tackles for loss on the afternoon.

The Dukes could only muster 26 yards on the ground all day, with Black leading the way with 43 yards on 11 carries.

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe has worked as a freelance writer for several publications over the past decade-plus, with a concentration on local and college sports. He is also a writer and editor for his father’s website, JerryRatcliffe.com, dedicated to the coverage of University of Virginia athletics.