As a Hermitage High quarterback, Rashad Robinson liked having the football in his hands. He knew he would miss that the most when he moved on to James Madison and became a defensive back, a position he had never played.

Robinson found ways to keep in contact with the ball. He shares the FCS lead with five interceptions and has eight career interceptions as a junior.

The latest was one of Robinson’s greatest — an 82-yard catch-and-score job in JMU’s 21-0 victory over New Hampshire last Saturday — although it’s difficult to top Robinson’s first interception this year. At East Carolina in the Dukes’ 34-14 season-opening win, Robinson, with his back to the line of scrimmage, closed on Pirate Jimmy Williams in the right corner of the end zone.

“Coaches always taught us that if we’ve got good position, don’t turn to the ball. That’s potentially how you get the ball caught on you, because you turn too late,” he said.

The ball descended into Williams’ hands. Robinson ripped it away, executing the rare interception without seeing the pass at any point.

Last Saturday’s interception and return by Robinson for a touchdown in the third quarter accounted for the Dukes’ third and final score as they extended their winning streak to 20 games, Division I’s longest.

JMU coach Mike Houston called Robinson’s play “a game-changing deal there, not only forcing a turnover there in the red zone, but being able to turn it into 7 points.”

Sean McDonnell, in his 19th year as the UNH coach, recognized on Monday that the Dukes are the No. 1 team in the country for a lot of reasons, but added, “I think their defense has been the difference in that program since the middle of last season.”

Madison (8-0, 5-0 CAA), the FCS’ top-ranked team and off to the best start in program history, goes for its 21st straight victory Saturday at Rhode Island (2-6, 1-4 CAA), which has the CAA’s third-best passing offense (247 yards per game). Count on interception opportunities for JMU, which hasn’t missed many this season.

The Dukes picked off 21 passes last year in 15 games on the way to the FCS championship. This season, they have 17 in eight games, ranking second in the FCS. Robinson’s interception/TD return was JMU’s second in two games. Jimmy Moreland had a 38-yard pick-6 last week in a 46-14 win at William & Mary.

Robinson believes the pick uptick is tied to the Dukes being in their second year with veteran defensive coordinator Bob Trott, lured to Harrisonburg from the University of Richmond by Houston. Rhode Island coach Jim Fleming on Monday noted the steady pressure JMU’s defensive front, which he said physically resembles “the New York Giants,” applies to passers. With 29 sacks, JMU ranks among the top five in the FCS.

Houston echoed Fleming but also pointed out the talent in the Dukes’ secondary. Safety Jordan Brown, another a former high school quarterback, also has five interceptions this season for JMU, which leads the CAA with a turnover margin of plus-11.

Robinson “is one of those guys who’s always going to play hard and do his best,” said Houston. “You put that together with he’s got some ability and he’s really a tough kid.”

The Dukes haven’t allowed more than 14 points in a game this season. In the final six games last year, JMU allowed an average of 13.5 points. It allowed 20 or more in seven of the first nine in 2016.

When identifying the turning point for Dukes’ defense, “We always think about the Villanova game last year,” said Robinson. JMU lost quarterback Bryan Schor, because of a shoulder injury, late in the first half and won 20-7 on Nov. 12.

“It was a tight game and we knew the defense was going to have to hold it down,” said Robinson. “That gave us the confidence to feel like we can really shut teams down if we do our job. Ever since then, we’ve just been clicking and trying to get better each week.”

joconnor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6233

@RTDjohnoconnor

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