COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Everett Withers’ debut as James Madison football coach was over before it really got going.
On a hot, humid late-August afternoon, the Dukes fell behind 14-0 to Maryland in the first eight minutes of the game and never recovered en route to a 52-7 drubbing in the season-opener.
The final score left co-offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer shaking his head in disgust as he walked into the locker room. JMU’s much-hyped uptempo spread offense — predicated on rhythm passing and a quick-hitting running game — was stuck in neutral for most of the afternoon, finishing with just 302 yards.
It was the team’s lowest offensive output since Oct. 26 last season, when the Dukes tallied just 298 yards against William & Mary.
“We thought we could run the football a little bit better,” Withers said. “They were a lot more aggressive up front, they brought a lot more pressure, but again I thought we would throw the football a little bit better and run the football a little bit better.”
The 45,080 fans in attendance at Byrd Stadium were witness to a series of JMU miscues to start the game. After a three-and-out on offense to start things, senior Dejor Simmons interfered with the punt returner, giving Maryland the ball near midfield. Six plays and 58 yards later, Terps quarterback C.J. Brown ran for the first of his three touchdowns to give Maryland a 7-0 lead.
With the offense out of sync, JMU quarterback Vad Lee and the Dukes gave the ball back three plays later, only to have Maryland march down and score again to make it 14-0. At the end of the first quarter, the Division I-AA Dukes were down 17-0.
The much-anticipated debut of Lee — who was Georgia Tech’s starting quarterback last season — was a disappointment, in part because the Dukes were unable to contain UM’s defenders. JMU’s offensive line faced constant pressure from a variety of Maryland blitzes and rushes, making it hard for Lee to set his feet and throw.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior from Durham, N.C., wasn’t a sharp passer at Georgia Tech, and he wasn’t a sharp passer Saturday, completing 43 percent of his throws (16 of 37) for 141 yards and two interceptions.
“I think he was under a lot of pressure and I think [Maryland] had a lot to do with it,” Withers said. “He made some poor reads himself, and if you ask him he would tell you that. Again, first game in a new offense with a new system. Week one to week two, I hope we improve much better.”
Senior center Matt Williams, the only returning starter on the offensive line, said one type of blitz gave the Dukes’ line trouble. Other than that, he said, everything the Terps did Saturday he had seen on film previously.
“Our job is always to protect [Lee] and we got to get better at that,” Williams said. “We just got to look at the film and see what we did wrong.”
The media requested Lee for comment after the game, but Withers refused to make him available.
Sophomore tailbacks Khalid Abdullah and Alden Hill split carries Saturday. Abdullah, who rushed for 347 yards as a freshman last season, was held to 20 yards on 67 carries while Hill, a Tennessee transfer, rushed for 33 yards on seven carries. JMU’s only points Saturday came in the fourth quarter on 1-yard run by freshman tailback John Miller.
“It’s a long journey, it’s a long journey,” Withers said. “I told those guys in the locker room, just so you know, I think we’re going to have a really good football team. We’ve got to, again, take care of ourselves, we can’t hurt ourselves. If we don’t hurt ourselves, we got a chance to have a really good football team.”
Withers said the penalties and negative plays didn’t allow the Dukes to get their uptempo offense rolling. Instead, JMU faced too many long yardage situations, one reason the Dukes went 4-of-19 on third down.
The 52 points allowed by JMU were the most since a 69-9 loss to Virginia in 1979. The Dukes allowed 471 yards against Maryland on Saturday, including 285 on the ground. UM quarterback C.J. Brown didn’t have good numbers, either, finishing the game 11-of-24 passing for 111 yards and one touchdown.
Much of Maryland’s yardage was aided by missed tackles by JMU, a factor Withers said “was as bad as I’ve seen it.”
“It’s frustrating, but at the end of the day we can’t really do anything if the tackle is missed,” senior safety Dean Marlowe said. “We just want to bounce back to next week and get better with our tackling and fundamentals too.”
The Dukes are back on the road next week against Lehigh.
“We did a lot of things good and we did a lot of things bad, so I think being more consistent is what we need to work at,” Williams said.