HARRISONBURG — In the offseason, James Madison football coach Mickey Matthews touted a new offense for his team, one predicated on passing after years and years of running.
The Dukes’ 15th-year coach even came this close to having Air Raid guru Hal Mumme on staff as offensive coordinator. JMU had scheduled the press conference and everything.
But through four games this season, it’s still about the run for Madison — and in no way has that been a bad thing.
Against North Carolina-Charlotte on Saturday, tailback Dae’Quan Scott continued his standout season, again rushing for more than 100 yards as the 17th-ranked Dukes overcame gloomy weather, five turnovers and the ejection of defensive tackle Jordan Stanton for a 34-7 victory over UNCC and the first-year program’s 3-4 defense at a mostly empty Bridgeforth Stadium.
“Why not run the ball down their throat?” JMU quarterback Michael Birdsong said when asked if the offense is shifting toward the run. “I mean, if they’re going to give us that, and, like I said, if we’ve got [Scott] in the backfield, let’s take it to them and make them pay for running that [3-4] front.
“Right now, we’re taking what teams give us, and we’re going to keep on doing it. If that means we we’re going to run it, we’re going to run it. If we’re going to throw it, we’ll throw it if we have to. We’re going to do what teams allow us to do.”
They haven’t really had a choice against Scott and his veteran offensive line. On Saturday, the 5-foot-9, 215-pound Scott rushed a career-high 35 times for 176 yards and two touchdowns in front of announced attendance of 18,302 at rainy Bridgeforth. It was the senior’s fourth straight 100-yard game and moved him past Curtis Keaton and into third place on Madison’s career rushing list.
As the season’s gone on, Scott’s carries have increased from 15 to 27 to 32 to 35 in each game, while JMU (3-1) has demonstrated an ability to put games away with its Offensive Player of the Year candidate and big, people-pushing O-line.
“I felt fine,” said Scott, who is averaging 148.3 rushing yards per game. “... If ya’ll are going to put anything in the paper, I want to give all the credit to my offensive line. They did a good job tonight.”
Madison ran 94 plays Saturday — two shy of the program record — and had 522 yards of offense, 321 of which came on the ground. The Dukes got unexpected help in the rushing game from true freshman Khalid Abdullah. JMU pulled his redshirt Tuesday because of injuries in the backfield and the 5-10, 195-pounder’s consistent strong performances in practice.
Matthews lauded the Heritage High School (Newport News) graduate’s ability to jump cut, and in relief of hurt tailbacks Jainard Lambert (torn thumb ligament) and Jauan Latney (dislocated knee), Abdullah averaged 4.7 yards on 13 carries Saturday. He rushed for 61 yards total, including a hard 6-yard touchdown run with 11:20 left in the game to put JMU ahead 34-7.
“Tuesday, he looked so good in drills,” Matthews said. “He had a great August, and I made the comment to the offensive coaches, in years past, Khalid would be our starting running back. That’s how good his August was, but we had all those other guys, so we decided to redshirt him.”
After a dismal performance in last week’s win over Saint Francis, Birdsong bounced back against Charlotte (2-2), completing 20 of 28 passes for 201 yards and a 37-yard pass to Quintin Hunter, playing his first game since bruising a kidney against Akron, to make it 20-7 with 6:17 left in the second quarter.
But Birdsong was intercepted twice, and the Dukes turned it over five times. The other three were on fumbles, including one on the opening kickoff that gave UNCC the ball on the JMU 31.
The 49ers — who had four turnovers — scored two plays later to go up 7-0. Madison outscored Charlotte 34-0 the rest of the way, but Matthews was not pleased by all the turnovers. The Dukes have 13 this season. Entering the game, the 49ers led Division I-AA in fumbles recovered (seven) and forced turnovers (12.
It wasn’t enough to help them against JMU, which held UNCC to 231 yards of offense and just 98 yards passing. Madison also didn’t give up any big plays — something that has plagued the team this season.
“All week in practice, we were just harping on, ‘No big plays, no big plays,’” said Dukes safety Jeremiah Wilson, who had two tackles — including one to stop a fourth-and-goal at the JMU 1-yard line in the first quarter — and a fumble recovery. “We just went out there today and played our game. Offense played well and the defense played well.”
Stanton, a 6-4, 280-pound senior who leds Madison with 3.5 sacks, was ejected just before halftime on a targeting penalty. Matthews said he didn’t see the play, but disagreed with having that penalty in I-AA because replay isn’t universally available to double check what is a very serious call.
“I didn’t see Jordan’s. I just didn’t see it,” Matthews said. “... I think it’s a horrible rule for [I-AA] because, you know, if it happens in the Virginia-Virginia Tech game, the officials go over and watch the film of it, and at that point, if they think it’s a targeting foul, they kick the kid out. But in our level, the official has to see it, and he has to make a judgment. It happens so fast.”
Matthews said Stanton denied targeting.
“Jordan, he told me, ‘Coach, it happened so fast, I’m just rushing the guy. I didn’t know where I hit him,’” Matthews said. “I just didn’t see. Everyone knows Jordan. He’s a good kid. Certainly, there’s nothing malicious about the child. … And [UNCC coach] Brad [Lambert] said he didn’t see it, either.”
NOTE: Matthews said defensive end Sage Harold suffered a high-ankle sprain and could be out for two to six weeks.