HARRISONBURG – On the field, it was a familiar situation Trai Sharp was ready for.
When top-ranked James Madison needed its junior running back, Sharp didn't hesitate.
As usual, he showed off his speed while dodging defenders en route to the end zone twice during the Dukes’ 75-14 thumping of Norfolk State on Saturday at Bridgeforth Stadium.
It’s what happened away from the field that made Sharp’s performance all the more impressive.
“His dad passed away during the fourth quarter of our game," a somber JMU coach Mike Houston said after the game. “I’m really proud of Trai. He had a great day today, and he’s having a tough day today."
Houston said Sharp’s father, David, had been sick for about a month, and that the running back found out that his father, back in North Carolina, had died while the game was still going on.
Sharp was not made available to the media after the Dukes' win.
Sharp rushed for 130 yards on nine carries and had three catches for 45 yards. His touchdowns – one rushing and one receiving – helped JMU separate from the Spartans during a 35-point second quarter for the Dukes.
More touches came Sharp’s way after fifth-year senior running back Cardon Johnson exited the game with an injury early in the second quarter. Johnson has started all three games for JMU this season, but fell to the ground after limping following a 1-yard run.
Houston said he didn’t have an update on Johnson’s status. Johnson missed the final six games of 2016 with an Achilles injury.
When Johnson got hurt last year, it was Sharp who played in a tandem role with then-starter Khalid Abdullah to help the Dukes navigate the postseason and win a national championship.
“Just the kind of person he is,” Houston said of Sharp. “And how much he improved over the last year. I’m proud of the way he went out and played today, and I’m even more proud of the way he carries himself on a daily basis.
“He’s an important part of our program.”
The offensive series after Johnson departed, Sharp got the ball on five consecutive plays netting 66 yards before crossing the goal line on a 2-yard touchdown run. Sharp covered most the field on a 45-yard run to help set up the score that gave JMU a 30-7 lead.
JMU began distancing itself from Norfolk State during the second quarter after quarterback Bryan Schor’s fumble on a designed run resulted in a 33-yard scoop-and-score for Spartans safety Nhyre’ Quinerly.
The Norfolk State touchdown cut JMU’s early edge to 16-7.
JMU answered with 52 straight points.
Sharp caught a swing pass from Schor and took it 17 yards, scurrying into the purple-painted turf. It was Sharp’s second touchdown in four minutes.
“Trai was just doing what Trai does,” JMU junior running back Marcus Marshall said. “He was running hard and being physical. He had a great game.”
As a team, JMU rushed for 472 yards, marking the second time in three games this season that the Dukes have eclipsed 400 rushing yards. JMU ran for 422 yards in the season opener at FBS East Carolina.
Marshall, a Georgia Tech transfer, ran for two touchdowns on 67 yards rushing.
Freshman running back Percy Agyei-Obese carried for 103 yards and a touchdown when the Dukes’ second-team offense was on the field for the majority of the second half.
“They lined up and ran it down our throats,” Norfolk State coach Latrell Scott said. “They were more physical upfront than we were and I think their tempo affected us some.
“It’s a well-oiled machine.”
Marshall said he’s feeling more comfortable in the Dukes’ system after playing two-full seasons in the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense.
“No doubt,” Marshall said. “I think every week I keep getting better. Obviously, I haven’t been here that long, but I’m continuing to work on my craft.”
In total, JMU out-gained Norfolk State 728 total yards to 91 yards. It was the second straight game JMU’s defense held its opponent without a touchdown.
Norfolk State dropped to 0-3 and the Dukes (3-0) extended the nation’s longest winning streak in Division I to 15 games, but Houston said his team wasn’t up for celebrating.
Near tears and with his voice breaking, Houston's thoughts went back to his junior running back.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Trai’s family,” Houston said. “We look forward to him working through this and we’ll all be right beside him.”