Tough Road Ahead

JMU Needs ‘O’ To Return

Posted: October 29, 2013

HARRISONBURG — The James Madison football team’s offense did not play well in Saturday’s 17-7 loss at William & Mary. If that wasn’t clear to anyone who watched, coach Mickey Matthews made it clear after the game and again Monday on the Colonial Athletic Association conference call and at his weekly press luncheon.

“We struggled offensively tremendously in the game,” Matthews said. “I don’t think there’s any secret to that.”

The Dukes’ offensive issues were somewhat surprising Saturday — even against one of Division I-AA’s top 10 defenses. JMU scratched out just 298 yards, went 5-for-17 on third down, failed to convert three fumbles into points and, maybe most startling for a program that is regularly among the best running teams in I-AA, rushed for 90 yards.

From 2009-12, JMU’s inability to score cost it trips to the playoffs, and the question now is: Were Saturday’s difficulties just a blip for Madison’s offense, or were they indicative of a larger problem?

Matthews said it was the confluence of an off day by quarterback Michael Birdsong — he entered the game completing 61.9 percent of his passes and connected on just 52.9 percent against W&M — and the Tribe’s all-but-impregnable defense.

If the offense again becomes a long-term problem for JMU (5-3 overall, 2-2 in the CAA), then the question becomes what does that mean for JMU’s playoff chances? Those chances took a karate kick in the face Saturday, giving the Dukes a second league loss and a third one overall. (One of JMU’s losses was to I-A Akron, though.)

Surprising Maine (7-1, 4-0) is in the best position to capture the Colonial title. Not only are the Black Bears undefeated in the conference, three of the final four teams on their schedule — Stony Brook (3-4, 1-3), Albany (1-7, 0-4) and Rhode Island (3-6, 2-4) — have losing records. They close with New Hampshire (4-3, 3-1).

UNH, Towson (8-1, 3-1) and Delaware (6-2, 3-1) each have one CAA loss. Behind them are three two-loss teams: Villanova (4-4, 3-2), William & Mary (5-3, 2-2) and JMU, which finishes the season with Nova at home Saturday, at UNH, at home against Stony Brook and at Towson.

The Sports Network has four CAA teams making the 24-team I-AA tournament in its most recent projected bracket, and the Dukes aren’t one of them. JMU fell out of The Sports Network’s poll Monday and dropped seven spots to No. 23 in the I-AA coaches’ poll.

Does Madison need to win the rest of its games — a brutal stretch against teams with a combined 19-12 record – to get a playoff bid?

“All we’re tying to do is win this week,” Matthews said. “I think if you start worrying about all that and this and the other, you really lose focus. We’re concentrating on nothing but beating Villanova. That’s our sole [focus]. No one has to tell us we have two losses. The players probably know that. So we need to win this week, so that’s all we’re concerned with.”

Matthews pointed to the Dukes’ recent inability to run as a larger problem than Birdsong’s down game against W&M, which he viewed as an isolated happening — a young quarterback having an inevitable down performance. The sophomore from suburban Richmond went 18-of-34 for 208 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

He also held onto the ball too long before passing (while doing a lot of scrambling), and Matthews said Birdsong needed to get rid of the ball quicker.

“We had open receivers. We had places to throw the ball,” Matthews said.

But, again, the sputtering ground game is the bigger problem. In the past two games, JMU has rushed for 64 yards against Richmond and 98 against William & Mary. To be fair, against UR, the Dukes scored quickly thanks to big passing plays, making the run less essential. Regardless, Matthews, while not panicking, stressed Monday that his team needs to be better on the ground.

That might be hard to accomplish Saturday against Villanova, a must-win for both teams to keep their playoff chances intact. Matthews said tailback Dae’Quan Scott suffered a sprained ankle against Richmond and reinjured it Saturday against W&M. It’s unclear if Scott, who is averaging 100 yards a game rushing, will play against the Wildcats.

“I’m not sure what the extent is,” Matthews said. “I know it wasn’t good.”

While Scott’s absence would hurt, JMU does have other capable running backs. Freshman tailback Khalid Abdullah has played well, and the Dukes have Jauan Latney (dislocated knee) and Jainard Lambert (torn thumb ligament) back from injury.

One thing Matthews didn’t second guess about the William & Mary loss was the offensive game plan.

“I would say anytime you do like that, you always second guess what you’ve done as a coach,” Matthews said. “You don’t wish you’d done one thing, you wish you’d done 10 things differently. But prior to the game, the plan we had, I thought — and as I say, I’m [offensive coordinator Mike O’Cain’s] consultant — and what he and I thought we should do, I thought was good.”

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