The Northeast Conference Champion Duquesne Dukes earned a birth in the FCS playoffs with their late-game win last week against Central Connecticut State. The Dukes have rolled off five in a row, but face a tough test against Towson in Johnny Unitas Stadium in Baltimore on Saturday at 2 PM.
Towson comes in with a 7-4 record. For as hot as the Dukes have been, Towson has been 1-3 to close out their season. However, their schedule has been a bit tougher than the Dukes, as all four of those games were against ranked opponents and their win came against Elon, who ranked fifth at the time and ranks 17th in the FCS now.
Towson comes in ranked 19th overall in their own right, and present the toughest FCS challenge to date for Duquesne. Of course, the Dukes did spend some time early in the season preparing for these tough moments. They traveled to Amherst and Honolulu to take on UMass and Hawaii, FBS programs. While they lost the games by a combined score of 105-36, Duquesne has proved to be battle-tested, going 8-1 against FCS schools, including three road conference wins in do or die situations to win the conference.
“We utilize what we have learned in the past,” head coach Jerry Schmitt talked about his battle-tested group. “Our guys know we’ve played a tough schedule, and we’ve had a tough year and have overcome adversity. So we are excited to go down to Johnny Unitas Stadium and play a great football game.”
The stadium is named after the Hall of Fame quarterback and hosts a quarterback who has a name with some recognition in his own in Towson’s Tom Flacco. Yes, the name is as familiar as you think, the Towson Tigers are led by the younger brother of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
Like Joe, Tom transferred from a Division-One school (Rutgers) to an FCS school and prospered as a player. He is third amongst players in total offense and has amassed 31 total touchdowns. His season earned him a nomination for FCS Offensive Player of the Year. However, he has done it a bit differently than his brother. While his brother is a pure pocket passer, coach Schmitt would compare Tom’s style to a Johnny Manziel type, more than the stand back and sling it style of his brother.
“He is a little different in that he runs around all over the place,” admitted Schmitt. “He can throw it well; he runs a great offense. He is the modern style quarterback who can pass it and run it. He has the character of a leader on the field and runs a good offense.”
While slowing down the offense is going to be an immense task, it is worth noting that part of Duquesne’s winning streak has to do with getting healthy bodies back in their secondary. There was a stretch early in the season where Duquesne would shuffle their back end series to series to keep fresh bodies in the game.
Since then, they have regained health, young performers such as Jassir Jordan and Harvey Clayton have emerged, and they were even able to move Daquan Worley to the offensive side of the ball thanks to having faith in their back end.
“We are healthier now than we have been,” Schmitt noted on his secondary. “Now we have depth with A.J. Roberts back and Harvey Clayton, Spencer DeMedal, Brandon Stanback, LeAndro DeBrito, a lot of linebacker-safety types. Now with Reid Harrison-Ducros healthy and having Jordan and Jonathant Istache at corner we feel really good about our depth.”
When you can rattle off about eight defensive backs names as potential contributors, you have to feel good about your depth. That depth will be needed as the Tigers will spread Duquesne out and test their secondary through the air and ground.
Another way to help the defense is to control the pace of the game with the offense. Duquesne has relied on A.J. Hines over their winning streak and has established an identity in that regard. Over the past five games he has carried the ball 27, 28, 31, 33, and 33 times. That has amounted to 917 yards, over 183 yards per game and 6 yards per carry. If the Dukes can play their style of football, they can control the clock, and give those defensive backs rest that they will likely need.
“There is an aspect of if you can control the football you are keeping their offense off of the field. However, if you score fast, you score fast. Hines can break big runs too. We just want to stay balanced and take what they give.” Schmitt stated.
With that in mind, there is some potential that the passing game can open up if the Dukes force Towson to take away their bread and butter of Hines. This is where staying balanced has to matter.
“They are basic, but they do it really well,” Schmitt mentioned of their defensive scheme. “ I know they are going to try to stop A.J. so if they creep their safeties into the box we can get one-on-ones on the outside.”
While Duquesne has been reliant on A.J. Hines, Towson cannot forget that Nehari Crawford has the speed and ball tracking abilities to change the game on one play. He won the game on his impressive grab last week against Central Connecticut State, sending his team into the playoffs and becoming the all-time leader in career receptions.
It is going to be tough to slow down the offensive attack led by Tom Flacco. The best defensive attacks in the FCS have not done that. With the combination of a strong running game and a potential game-breaker on the outside, the question will be if that is enough for the Dukes to hang with Towson score for score.
“They are going to compete on a big stage with no worries, and no nervousness at all. They are a loose group, and they love to play football, and they want to be Dukes and play Dukes football,” Schmitt added.
The winner of this game will take on No. 5 South Dakota State.