Mickey: It’s JMU’s Best Since Landers
HARRISONBURG — With Rodney Landers quarterbacking the James Madison football team in 2008, the Dukes made their most recent deep run into the Division I-AA playoffs, driven by a high-powered offense that averaged 38.1 points and 401.4 yards per game.
JMU’s performance in a tight 35-33 loss to I-A Akron Saturday gave Mickey Matthews flashbacks.
“We really like the direction we’re heading offensively,” the Dukes’ 15th-year coach said this week. “… It’s probably the best offensive game we’ve played since we lost Rodney Landers in ’08. … Against a quality opponent, that’s the best offensive game we’ve had in a while.”
Since Landers graduated after taking JMU to the I-AA semifinals, that once-potent offense has looked more mortal. From 2009-11, the Dukes never averaged more than 22.1 points per game.
They averaged 28.8 in 2012, but that wasn’t enough to save offensive coordinator Jeff Durden, who was fired after JMU missed the playoffs for the third time in four years.
On Saturday, the Dukes’ offense — with a more balanced play-calling approach compared to the run-first option attack of Durden and Landers — came back to life, showing that Madison’s new fast-paced, no-huddle style directed by first-year OC Mike O’Cain could turn into something, well…
“It’s amazing. It’s fun,” said JMU wide receiver DeAndre’ Smith, who had four catches for 57 yards against Akron before injuring his Achilles tendon. It’s unclear if he’ll be available for Saturday’s game against Saint Francis (Pa.). “It kind of lets us know our offensive coordinator and the head coach has faith in us receivers to catch and the quarterback to throw the ball. It’s amazing. It’s great. I love it.”
The Dukes had 498 yards of offense — against a I-A team — and ran 94 plays, two shy of the school record of 96 set Sept. 22, 1990 against Richmond. The best showing by the Landers offense in 2008 was 540 yards (against William & Mary) and 77 plays (against Delaware).
Current quarterback Michael Birdsong — who guided JMU on a last-gasp drive before some controversial refereeing may have cost the Dukes (1-1) a shot at victory — completed 29 of 42 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
Nine receivers caught passes, led by Daniel Brown, who had 74 yards receiving. Dae’Quan Scott, an all-purpose tailback, had a team-high six catches for Madison.
Matthews’ had effusive praise for the wide receivers, who caught and blocked — “Probably the best they’ve played in five or six years,” he said — and especially Birdsong, JMU’s indefatigable 6-foot-4, 240-pound sophomore QB. He is the apparent driving force behind what, after two games, could be a burgeoning offensive renaissance at Bridgeforth Stadium.
The Dukes are averaging 35.5 points and 430 yards per game while throwing the ball 40 percent of the time. Historically, JMU has thrown it about 30 percent of the time under Matthews.
In 2012, Madison threw it on 36 percent of their plays, but with the strong-armed and accurate Birdsong, it seems odd to not throw it.
“I think he’s a future All-American, obviously,” said Saint Francis coach Chris Villarrial, a former All-Pro offensive lineman whose team lost 59-17 to Georgia Southern in its season-opener Saturday. “He’s a guy that, if he stays the path, a guy that keeps going at the rate he’s gong, he may be a guy you see on Sundays.”
On the final drive against the Zips (1-1), Birdsong went 5-for-8 for 55 yards, putting the ball in places where only his receivers could catch it, notably Arlandis Harvey and Quintin Hunter, who both had clutch receptions in the final minutes. Hunter ended up with a bruised kidney as a result of one of his. It’s unclear if Hunter will be available Saturday.
“I thought Birdsong really emerged [against Akron] ’cause the kids were really with him,” Matthews said. “If you’re around Michael, he is extremely competitive, and there wasn’t a doubt he was going to take it — somehow he was going to get us down the field.”
NOTE: Matthews said Birdsong dislocated a shoulder and injured a foot against Akron, but the quarterback is expected to play Saturday against Saint Francis.