A QB Mystery
JMU Mum On Who’ll Start In Big CAA Game
HARRISONBURG — In recent weeks, James Madison University has left the scoreboard on at Bridgeforth Stadium. It looms over football practice as a constant, glowing advertisement for the Dukes’ crucial Colonial Athletic Association game against Old Dominion here tonight.
The nearly sold-out matchup — which will be broadcast nationally on cable by the NBC Sports Network — has been promoted as the “Clash of the Crowns” in a play on the two teams’ regal mascots: the JMU Dukes and ODU Monarchs. T-shirts marketing “Big Time Football” have been made, but the game — at least for Madison — doesn’t need a marketing push.
If the No. 13 Dukes, once seen as a strong contender for the Division I-AA national championship but now facing quarterback issues, don’t win, they probably miss the playoffs for the third time in four years.
JMU (7-3 overall, 5-2 in the CAA) has just one victory over a team with a winning record. In a year of uncommon strength in I-AA, the Dukes likely will need eight wins to be in the conversation for an at-large playoff berth, and beating No. 4 ODU (9-1, 6-1) would not only get them eight wins but also a second quality win to bolster what is a currently a weak résumé.
But does it get James Madison, which lost 23-20 last year in Norfolk in the two teams’ first-and-only meeting, in the playoffs?
“I don’t know that,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said early this week. “I think there will be some eight-win teams that stay home.”
On Thursday, though, Matthews expressed confidence that a victory would earn the Dukes a bid.
Going into today’s games, six CAA teams are in the playoff picture: JMU ODU, New Hampshire (which has the inside track on the league’s automatic bid), Richmond, Towson and Villanova.
It is unclear if the Dukes still have a chance to be the Colonial’s automatic qualifier, but their best shot includes New Hampshire — which can win the automatic bid by beating Towson today at noon — winning, and Richmond and Villanova losing. Old Dominion is ineligible for the CAA championship because it’s leaving the league next year, jumping to Division I-A Conference USA.
The Sports Network, a media outlet that closely follows I-AA, predicts that just two Colonial teams (UNH and ODU) will make the 20-team playoffs (the league has sent at least four teams in each of the past five seasons) and CAA associate commissioner Scott Meyer said this week that the conference would be “extremely lucky” to get four teams in the postseason.
Because of the squeeze on playoff spots, it makes a JMU win that much more important — and Matthews, a bit prickly this week, knows that. Normally forthcoming, he has refused to update injuries and, when reached Friday afternoon, he refused to name a starting quarterback after last week’s starter, the mobile Justin Thorpe, suffered what Matthews said were shoulder and ankle injuries against Villanova.
Michael Birdsong, the superior passing threat and Thorpe’s backup much of the year before supplanting him as starter for one game, sprained his ankle Nov. 3 at Maine.
For what it’s worth, the sports information department’s depth chart for today’s game lists Thorpe as the starter and Lafonte Thourogood as the backup. Thourogood, a transfer from Vanderbilt, has seen no significant action this season but was elevated to No. 2 because of Birdsong’s injury.
Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder said his team planned to prepare for both quarterbacks, plus Thourogood and tailback Dae’Quan Scott, who has played quarterback for Madison out of the wildcat formation in the past.
“Those quarterback runs, it’s like you’ve got an extra man in the offense, so we’ve got to prepare for that 12-man football and be ready for Justin,” Wilder said. “We’ll work on some of the drop-back [Birdsong] showed us, particularly from the Richmond game. … We did spend a lot of time on the second half of the Richmond game, where we saw a lot of what Michael can do — the Georgia State game, as well. If we see Lafonte Thourogood or a lot more Dae’Quan Scott out of the wildcat, we’ll have a plan for that, as well.
“It’s a little bit confusing right now and it’s a little bit frustrating trying to figure out who they’re going to be and what they’re going to do on offense.”
JMU, however, knows exactly what Old Dominion will do.
The Monarchs lead I-AA in total offense (556.8 yards per game) and are second in scoring offense (45.1 points per game) behind superstar quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who is completing 67.9 percent of his passes while averaging 418.8 yards of total offense per game.
Old Dominion runs its offense fast, and in a 64-61 win over New Hampshire, ran 106 plays. But, tonight, it will face one of the CAA’s best defenses. JMU is allowing just 19.3 points per game, which ranks 17th in I-AA and leads the Colonial.
“The stats that jump out at you are our offensive numbers and their defensive numbers,” Wilder said. “Those definitely jump off the page, and it was similar last year.”
But Old Dominion’s defense and JMU’s offense have been suspect.
The Monarchs are giving up 397.7 yards per game (eighth in the 11-team CAA) and 28.4 points per game. Madison is averaging 399.5 yards and 28.9 points per game but, except for a 31-7 win at Maine, has struggled lately.
“We just need to not turn it over,” said Matthews, whose team has a minus-4 turnover margin. “We don’t have any explosive plays. We just struggle to make a big play, and, what we did at Maine — it just changed the game up there. We scored from a long way out. … We just need to hit some explosive plays. That’s what Old Dominion does.”