NEWARK, Del. — It was a particularly awful series of events for the James Madison football team.
During one stretch in the third quarter against Delaware, the 14th-ranked Dukes capped a long drive with missed a field goal, gave up a sack nanometers away from being a safety, had a punt blocked, got called for three penalties on back-to-back plays and lost a 12-point lead.
That stretch — which featured two UD scoring drives of just 15 yards each — in the third quarter was so bad, it cost JMU the game.
The Blue Hens rallied for a 29-22 victory in front 18,405 people Saturday night at Delaware Stadium in the Colonial Athletic Association opener for both teams.
“Those two drives were the whole game,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. “That was the whole game.”
The Dukes (3-2 overall, 0-1 in the CAA) had 414 yards of offense on 75 plays, but star tailback Dae’Quan Scott never got going against the Hens’ big defensive line. The senior — who is just four points away from breaking kicker David Rabil's career scoring record of 231 points — rushed for 51 yards on 20 carries. He entered the game averaging 148.2 yards, the best in the conference, which Matthews said will be tight. One loss, he said, won’t doom Madison.
“I thought they were two good football teams playing — two really good football teams,” Matthews said. “I thought it would be close — I think all these [CAA] games are going to be close. I think the conference champion will have two losses.”
Both teams struggled to run Saturday. Delaware, which had 360 yards of offense on 69 plays, rushed for 127 yards as a team. JMU had 122.
Quarterback Michael Birdsong completed 19 of 35 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns for JMU. The sophomore was sacked four times and intercepted once. The pick came with 1:58 left in the game and JMU trailing 29-22. It sealed the Blue Hens’ win after the Dukes struggled to get much going offensively in the second half.
“I don’t have a clue what happened,” Birdsong said of the second half. “I felt like we were calling the same plays. They made adjustments, I guess, 'cause I felt like we were doing the same thing. We went out with the same game plan, and they came out and they did what they were supposed to do. They made adjustments on what we were beating them on. They took it away.”
JMU led 19-7 after Birdsong hit Scott for a 33-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left in the first half. Then the third quarter happened.
The Dukes went on 16-play, 59-yard drive that lasted 6:53, but it ended with Cameron Starke missing a 33-yard field goal with 8:29 left in the period.
“We came out and we do that drive, and that’s really what we needed,” Birdsong said. “The fact that we didn’t get points, yeah, it hurt a little, but at that point … we still had the lead. But I think what we really wanted was a good drive and that’s what we got. We just got to execute. We should have never been in field goal position. We should have gotten a touchdown, but we didn’t execute, and that’s the way it goes.”
At 5:29 in the third quarter, Birdsong was sacked near the goal line, forcing Connor Arnone to punt it from the back of his end zone. After a short kick and a good return, the Blue Hens (4-1, 1-0) got the ball at the JMU 15-yard line. Three plays and 1:12 later, Delaware scored on a 1-yard pass to cut JMU’s lead to 19-14 with 3:34 left in the third quarter.
About two minutes later, UD’s Andrew Opoku blocked an Arnone punt. The worst part was it was Arnone’s second attempt, and his first one would have pinned the Hens inside their own 20, but a false start negated the punt. Then, after the second punt was blocked, JMU was called for a personal foul.
Further aided by a JMU defensive offsides — the Dukes had nine penalties for 77 yards total — on the first play after the punt, Delaware scored two plays later to take its first lead of the game 22-19 with 44 seconds left in the quarter. Those two UD scoring drives totaled five plays, 30 yards and 2 minutes, 3 seconds.
It was a momentum-killing series of happenings, and JMU, playing Delaware for the first time since 2010, never recovered.
“They definitely did a good job adjusting to what we were doing,” said Dukes middle linebacker Stephon Robertson, who had 16 tackles and an interception on UD's first possession that helped set up a field goal to put JMU ahead 3-0. “They saw something that was open and they just kept going with the tight end down the seam, and I think they hit that like, maybe, three times, and I think all but one was a touchdown.”
Down 22-19, Starke tied the game with a 28-yard field goal with 11:35 left. The senior kicker made three of four field goals, hitting from 42, 31 and 28. He also missed an extra point after Scott’s touchdown catch, and that catch was it for JMU’s offense, which got shut out in the second half.
“You could say it’s demoralizing, but you’ve got stay positive and control what we can on offense,” said JMU wide receiver Daniel Brown, who had five catches for 98 yards. “If something does happen, we put it on ourselves to bring the team back, and the defense did their job, and I think the offense just stalled out. We couldn’t punch it in today.”
With 3:06 to play and down 29-22, JMU got the ball at its 16 with a chance at a long drive to win it. The Dukes got to their 27, but UD’s Patrick Callaway intercepted Birdsong — he said he didn’t see Callaway — to secure the win. The Hens, after picking up a first down, kneeled out the clock.
“We’re going to move forward,” Robertson said. “This is definitely one that’s going to hurt, and it’s going to sting for the bus ride home.”