JMU Downs Villanova, 31-21
HARRISONBURG — The James Madison football team scored a touchdown on third down and 18, when quarterback Michael Birdsong completed a 34-yard pass to Daniel Brown with 3:52 left in the third quarter. The touchdown gave the Dukes a 10-point lead over Villanova on Saturday and came after a seemingly demoralizing 15-yard block-in-the-back penalty.
For JMU, the touchdown pass showed resilience and wrapped up a momentum-snatching drive that lasted more than five minutes and amounted to 15 plays and 90 yards. For Villanova, the defending Colonial Athletic Association champion still clinging to slim playoff hopes, it was the opposite.
“Yeah, that was a bummer,” Wildcats coach Andy Talley said. “… We had double coverage on the guy, but Birdsong threw it in really nice — the only place the kid could who caught it could have caught it — to the sideline, and our kid got beat a little bit and the free safety just never got there. So that was a gut buster.”
The Dukes took control after that.
Birdsong rebounded from a rough outing last week and DeAndre’ Smith had an 86-yard interception return for a touchdown to seal it as JMU played one of its best games of the season to likely eliminate Villanova from playoff contention with a 31-21 victory in front of 21,758 people — who were late arriving and quick departing — on homecoming at Bridgeforth Stadium.
Most importantly, the win keeps Madison’s playoff chances intact with three games left in the regular season.
“I don’t know if we have to win every game to get in the [Division I-AA] tournament. I’m certainly not on the committee,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. “… I think [Villanova is] very good. They were the conference favorite for a reason, and we just needed to beat a good football team. We needed to play four quarters.”
Matthews also lauded Birdsong, who, after completing just 52.9 percent of his passes in a 17-7 loss at William & Mary last week, went 20-of-29 (68.9 percent) for 207 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions Saturday. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound sophomore also a caught a 16-yard pass from wide receiver Quintin Hunter — a high school quarterback at Orange — that set up a 6-yard touchdown run by tailback Khalid Abdullah to put JMU ahead 7-0 with 8:29 left in the first quarter.
“Everybody has their days, and that was my day to not be there, I reckon,” said Birdsong, referring to the W&M game. “But I bounced back good, guys had my back and we went out there and got the job done.”
Said Matthews: “Michael played so much better tonight than he did last week. That was a huge difference in the game. He decided to listen to [offensive coordinator Mike] O’Cain and throw it where we wanted to throw it. We had the same receivers that were open last week open tonight, and we hit enough of them to win the game.”
Brown led JMU with eight receptions for 94 yards, and the Dukes (6-3 overall, 3-2 in the CAA) had 364 yards of offense on 71 plays, overcoming seven penalties (five went for 15 yards) for 100 yards. Madison’s defense — led (as usual) by linebacker Stephon Robertson, who tied a career-high with 16 tackles — kept Villanova star quarterback John Robertson from inflicting too much damage.
In the three games prior to Saturday’s, the 6-1, 215-pound sophomore rushed for a combined 620 yards and 10 touchdowns. Against JMU, he had 44 yards on 17 carries and no touchdowns. He threw for 219 yards, going 20-for-37 with two touchdowns.
“They did a good job spying me,” John Robertson said. “The kid, [Stephon] Robertson on the other team is real good, too. He was spying me the whole game. He was always around.”
Apparently. He was around so much, the two Robertson have developed a rapport.
“We would always talk back and forth in previous games,” said Stephon Robertson, who now has 116 tackles this season, surpassing the personal-best 114 he had as a sophomore in 2011. He has 415 for his career. “He’d always try to talk to me because he tried to stiff-arm me once, and I was like, ‘John, don’t do that, John.’”
John Robertson threw one interception — although JMU dropped several others — and it was a bad one. Smith, in only his third game as a college cornerback, stepped in front of the pass and returned it 86 yards down the VU sideline for a touchdown with 5:50 left in the game. Smith’s first career interception put the Dukes up 31-14, but the score almost was called back.
After a lengthy confab, the referees picked up a flag — presumably it was for a block in the back — that had Smith concerned that the third-longest return in JMU history would be nullified.
“I was really nervous they were going to call it back,” he said. “But they didn’t, so it was great.”
Matthews said JMU succeeded in slowing John Robertson because it avoided man-to-man coverage, meaning if Robertson broke free, there would, in theory, always be someone around to tackle the speedy quarterback, who was much-coveted by JMU when he played at Paramus High School in New Jersey.
Villanova had 373 yards of offense on 74 plays but went just 3-of-14 on third down. It also missed a 46-yard field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter that would have cut JMU’s lead to 24-17 and perhaps provided momentum.
“JMU played a very good game,” Talley said. “I think they maybe played the best game they have played all year. They’re a very physical team. I think Birdsong did a real nice job, and they had a nice mixture of passing and run. Their defense was very tenacious. We did make some plays, but not consistently and not enough to win the game.”