HARRISONBURG, Va. — In his home state and playing without leading rusher Justin Covington, quarterback Daniel Smith nearly put together the game of his young Villanova career on Saturday.
But a bad pass by the junior and a huge play by a James Madison backup turned the momentum toward the Dukes, who stayed atop the Colonial Athletic Association standings with a 38-24 victory.
Smith, who threw for 387 yards and three touchdowns, had the Wildcats (6-1, 3-1), ranked No. 5 in FCS, in JMU territory and headed for a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. But defensive back MJ Hampton stepped in for his first career interception and returned it 83 yards for a touchdown to give the second-ranked Dukes (6-1, 3-0) a 31-24 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“Unfortunately, in a tie game, they made plays, and we didn’t, and that’s how it got a little lopsided at the end,” Villanova coach Mark Ferrante said. “You’re not going to beat this team having four turnovers to zero.”
Hampton was forced into action after standout safety, D’Angelo Amos, who had blocked a Wildcats field-goal attempt, was ejected in the first quarter for targeting, a call that had JMU coach Curt Cignetti fuming as the replay was shown several times on the Bridgeforth Stadium video screen for the sellout crowd of 24,076.
Amos’ absence was noticeable immediately. Smith converted on a 16-yard completion on third-and-14, then found Changa Hodge down the middle for a 43-yard touchdown pass to tie the game, 7-7, 36 seconds into the second quarter.
Hodge continued to serve as a deep threat for the Wildcats, making eight catches for 134 yards. But the Villanova secondary also had few answers for 6-foot-5, 230-pound wideout Riley Stapleton in the red zone. He had touchdown catches of 2 and 5 yards and helped the Dukes take a 17-10 lead into intermission.
Villanova offensive coordinator Chris Boden "did a great job getting us in spots to attack where we could make big plays down the field,” Smith said. In "the first three quarters, we connected and made those big plays.”
Smith continued to dissect the JMU secondary in the third quarter, particularly on third-and-long, and connected with Hodge on another touchdown midway through the third quarter to give Villanova a 24-17 lead.
But Hampton’s pick was the first of three in the fourth quarter for the Dukes, who put the game away with a 69-yard scoring run by Latrele Palmer.