If there is one thing that you can say about the Duquesne Dukes as they head into Northeastern Conference play next week, it is that they are battle-tested. The team traveled to TCU and beat Ohio before showing just how valuable the step up in competition was in a 56-7 blowout victory of Virginia-Lynchburg.
The game played out like a baseball batter who knocked the donut off of their bat and swung the lighter version with ease for a home run. Still, coming off of a bye week, and a program-defining win, an argument for a letdown could have been made when they saw a non-conference foe with a less appealing name. The win is a testament to head coach Jerry Schmitt, and the belief that he instilled in his team that it does not matter if they play Ohio, or Virginia-Lynchburg, if they play their game, they are going to be a competitive group in 2021.
“They understand that there are all different levels of football that we play,” said Schmitt. “Our guys are bought into playing every single play, it doesn’t matter who you play because it is about us. We start with an interception, it doesn’t matter as long as we play our game for 60 minutes.”
A team with that kind of one-track mind can go into bigger stadiums and knock out teams as an underdog, but come right back and handle business as a heavy favorite. As the competition level evens out, it should provide learning moments to look back on.
“We are going to be competitors in every game,” added senior defensive back Spencer DeMedal. “We went and played TCU, we beat Ohio, playing those two FBS teams was a great ramp up, so I am excited for what we can do.”
The team was able to flash on all levels against the Dragons, getting back to their style of game. After an early interception, the Dukes leaned on their defense and got a key stop, ensuring no letdown was in progress. The defense then went on to shut out VA-Lynchburg until three minutes were left in the game and the score was 49-0.
Duquesne had a trio of running backs grind out yards and had five receivers catch a pass in the first half. DeMedal added a pick-six, to complete the full phase dominance.
“We were playing man-to-man,” DeMedal said, describing the play. “That actually wasn’t my man, but we switched based on the route combination, and the quarterback, I don’t think he knew that we switched the route so I just took it.”
Duquesne learned against Ohio that playing their game can work, and this group now feels that they can have success against any team as long as they play sound in all phases.
“They are bought into what they need to do to be their best on the field,” said Schmitt. “Their goal is to be the best that day, and they know that if we can be our best, that we can be the best on the field that day.”
Versatile Veterans Lead Dukes Defense
DeMedal had the key pick-six that took the game from 10-0 to 17-0. The senior, and his running mate in the back end Leandro DeBrito are captains and experienced leaders of the team. The skilled, and smart duo were moving all over the field and caused VA-Lynchburg to struggle to find any success through the air as they were forced to pass in comeback mode
As DeMedal noted, he switched his man based on the route to cause the interception, and that is a normal occurrence on the Duke’s back end. DeBrito, DeMedal, and sophomore Jeremiah Josephs complete a three safety look that moves around and forces quarterbacks to think twice and wonder if they are seeing the correct coverage.
DeBrito will line up in the box and fly into a single high, DeMedal will crash down on out-routes, and vice versa. The group is always talking to each other and playing off of each other pre and post-snap.
“With Leo, I love him, he is a veteran, he is a really good player,” DeMedal described playing with his teammate. “We have been playing for some time together so we have chemistry, it’s all based on trust, we know what each other are going to do, and we have each other back.”
Head coach Jerry Schmitt knows exactly what he has with his veteran duo as well. As college teams spread things out more it is even more valuable to have safeties who can play both deep and in the box. Adding the veteran presence only makes things easier for the Dukes.
“They’re both captains, both voted by the team and coaches, their leadership is outstanding,” raved Schmitt of his safeties. “There are a lot of teams in the country that would like two guys with that kind of skills, talent, ability, and they are good people too. When you combine all the things we are really fortunate.”
That kind of play in the back end can really inspire a defense and cause them to be more aggressive upfront. That is exactly what you saw with the Dukes on Saturday.
Two-Headed Punch At Running Back
The Dukes actually had three running backs score a touchdown on Saturday as JaMario Clements also found his way into the end zone. However, early into the game, it was clear that Duquense was going to ride a two-headed monster at running back between Garrett Owens and Billy Lucas.
Owens was the starter and comes as the more versatile back. He caught passes out of the backfield, ran inside, ran outside, and found a way to rack up over 100 yards before halftime, mostly guided by a 55-yard rush that went for six in the second quarter. Owens is listed as 6’3″, 230 pounds, so it was impressive to see such a big person move with such ease as he juked, hurdled, and finished runs with speed.
His counterpart, Billy Lucas is listed as 205 pounds, but he was the one toting the rock in the red zone, finishing with two touchdown runs, one from nine, and the other from ten yards out.
“They have different talents that they utilize,” Schmitt said of his backs. “Billy is a good downhill runner, a quick-cut guy, Garrett has the speed and length, and catches the ball.”
While we did not see it on Saturday, Schmitt noted that another valuable asset is getting the two on the field together. With Lucas getting downhill, and Owens being able to flare out, or kick runs outside for big gains, there are a lot of ways this duo could attack if they do get going together.
“Sometimes it’s great when we get them in the backfield together, and defenses are not sure what is coming,” added Schmitt.
Whether together or spelling each other, it is clear that the duo will be sharing the work, and that the Dukes will be leaning on each other when the situation calls for it.
“They are sharing the carries, sharing the blocking, so everyone is paying unselfish right now, and that is a good thing,” Schmitt said.
Diving into the depth of the Dukes
Getting up 38-0 before halftime allowed Duquesne to get some depth players in before halftime, which only continued into the second half.
Quarterbacks Bryce Veasley, Evan Nelson, and Chase Diehl all took snaps. Clements, Ky’Ren Cunningham, and DaMon Macklin finished out the game at running back. Joey Corado hauled in a touchdown in the final minute. Jon Muehlbauer corraled a pick and a long list of names joined these performers as depth Dukes who were able to get significant time and make big plays.
The team celebrated seeing some of the younger names step up when called upon, but Schmitt knows there is more value than that. If anyone has watched football they know that the violence of the sport can leave a team calling on any player at any time to step in for someone. Getting these younger, and less experienced players on the field for significant work could go a long way for the Dukes as they dig into conference play.
“Our older guys have done a good job of acclimating them into our program, our philosophy, and what we want to do on the field,” boasted Schmitt of the performance of his depth.
“We talk about it through camp, to the first part of the season that you guys have to be ready anytime to be called on. (Mike)Tomlin says ‘next man up’ here we say ‘be ready anytime’. Sometimes it might be three plays, but those three plays impact the entire game or the entire season.”
Schmitt has to be pleased that all of his starters were out of the game by the time the score was 38-0, and in a slow second half, the Dukes still beat VA-Lynchburg 16-7 in the second half.
The Dukes will look to take on their next challenge as they open up conference play at Merrimack on Saturday.