Goal: Clean It Up
Penalties Bug JMU As It Preps For Flash
HARRISONBURG — There are, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 11.5 million people in Ohio. Mickey Matthews said last weekend that not one of them was more shocked than him after the James Madison football team’s 35-33 loss at Akron.
“I was the most stunned person in the state of Ohio when we got those unsportsmanlike conducts,” Matthews said this week. “It’s just a lack of discipline and something we’ve gotta stop.”
Penalties have marred the Dukes’ two games so far. JMU has been penalized a Colonial Athletic Association-worst 16 times, an average of eight per game, which ranks 78th out of 113 teams in Division I-AA. The Dukes (1-1) are averaging 71 penalty yards per game — 80th in I-AA.
Against Akron, a large number of those penalties were for unsportsmanlike conduct, hence the stunned Matthews, who insists that those sort of fouls are uncharacteristic of his teams. And in Matthews’ opinion, penalties are one of the primary factors holding back his team.
“Our kids played hard in the [Akron] game. That was as hard as we’ve played in a while,” Matthews said. “... I told them after the game the only thing I was upset with was all the unsportsmanlike [conduct penalties]. We just don’t do that. I couldn’t even begin to tell the JMU nation where all that came from. … That’s my fault. We lost our discipline during the game, and that shouldn’t have happened.”
Today, JMU will try to pare down the penalties when it hosts lightly regarded Saint Francis, a Catholic university in Loretto, Pa., with about 1,600 undergraduates, at 6 p.m. The Red Flash (0-1) are coming off a season-opening 59-17 loss to Georgia Southern, a I-AA power that is jumping to the I-A Sun Belt next year.
But Saint Francis — a perennial pushover from the Northeastern Conference that JMU crushed 55-7 last season in Harrisonburg — picked up more first downs than Georgia Southern (22-20) and ran for 245 yards a year after setting the school record for rushing yards with 2,610 on an also-record 502 attempts out of a pro-style offense.
Last season, the Red Flash kept it on the ground 71 percent of the time, and against Georgia Southern, 5-foot-9, 195-pound senior running back Kyle Harbridge rushed for 137 yards on 25 carries. Saint Francis platoons redshirt freshmen quarterbacks Capri Thompson (6-2, 190) and Max Ward (6-1, 206). It attempted only 19 passes against Georgia Southern, completing just 36.8 percent of them.
In 2012, the Red Flash won more games than they had since 1992, going 5-6. That tied the number of wins they had combined from 2008-11. It also was their best record as a I-AA team, albeit an underfunded one. The NEC allows its teams just 40 scholarships, 23 fewer than the I-AA limit of 63 (JMU has all 63). But coach Chris Villarrial said SFU allows its football program only 34.
Still, Saint Francis is taking steps from the rubble of an ugly history that includes five winless seasons since 1995. And beating JMU, one of I-AA’s elite programs, would be, perhaps, the biggest step so far.
“Anytime you can compete with a team such as JMU, in that conference, it builds morale, it’s a boost immediately,” said Villarrial, a former All-Pro offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears in his fifth season coaching the Red Flash. “It’s just like if JMU goes down and beats LSU. It just builds confidence in your team. But before [we] can think about that, we have to make a lot of corrections and we got to correct a lot of our mistakes to be able to compete with them and have the mindset to go down there and be ready to go.”
For JMU, a major focus is ending the penalties. Matthews spent the week beating it into his players’ heads. This included a lengthy talk after practice Thursday.
“We have a team meeting Mondays, and we, in front of the whole team, we show them every penalty,” Matthews said. “... Let’s just say it’s an extremely one-sided conversation. … The kids know fair and they know truth. They know film does not lie. Sometimes we show them it’s a bad call by the official, and sometimes we show them it’s not the smartest thing they’ve ever done in their life.”
Other concerns for JMU are stopping big plays on defense and accounting for the loss of wide receiver DeAndre’ Smith (Achilles tendon), who will miss today’s game after catching four passes for 57 yards last week. Wide receiver Quintin Hunter also is likely unavailable after bruising a kidney making a clutch catch down the stretch against Akron. (There’s a chance he could be cleared to hold on extra points.)
Quarterback Michael Birdsong, who dislocated his non-throwing shoulder and suffered a minor foot injury (he missed practice Monday and Tuesday), is expected to play — as is defensive end Tyler Snow (groin) — as the Dukes try to rebound from a tough loss to I-A Akron.
“I’ll be blunt with you. We thought we were better than Akron … although I knew it would be a fight,” Matthews said. “So in terms of that, we’re moving on.”