Dukes Are Done
Offense Stalls, 38-28
Posted: November 19, 2012
HARRISONBURG — It started off so well for the James Madison football team Saturday night.
The Dukes’ offense was sharp early against Old Dominion, collecting 217 yards and taking an 11-point halftime lead, thanks in large part to quarterback Justin Thorpe, who finished the first half with three touchdowns and 192 yards of offense.
JMU’s defense, unveiling a surprise 3-4 formation and blitzing frequently, held the Monarchs’ mighty offense to just 117 yards in the first two quarters.
The momentum didn’t last.
Like so many times in recent seasons, the Dukes eventually were undercut by their offense and struggled through the second half, losing 38-28 in the chill at Bridgeforth Stadium to miss out on the Division I-AA playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
“First half, we were rolling,” JMU tight end Brian Barlow said. “Everything was going well. Second half, I think the offense came out kind of flat, started getting three-and-outs, and then, that’s just hard. We were only on the field for a minute or whatever, and then give the ball back to the defense. I don’t know what the deal was.”
Missing the playoffs was a stunning disappointment for the Dukes, who started the season ranked No. 5 in Division I-AA behind an experienced team led by Thorpe, who had the kind of up-and-down season that has defined his career at Madison.
JMU dropped from No. 13 to No. 17 Sunday in The Sports Network’s I-AA poll, while ODU rose from No. 4 to No. 3.
Thorpe, a team captain, skipped the post-game press conference Saturday, leaving Barlow, safety Jakarie Jackson and linebacker Stephon Robertson to answer all the questions.
JMU coach Mickey Matthews was, understandably, in a sour mood after the game and chastised a reporter, in personal terms, when the reporter asked if something in the football program needed to be reevaluated or changed because of the suddenly rare playoff appearances.
“I don’t know,” Matthews said. “You’re asking that question right after a game. We’re pretty low, right now. I think that’s kind of a bad question right after a game. Why don’t you ask me that in about a month? It’s a crushing defeat. You reporters are great guys. Did you ever play any sport or anything?”
When the reporter said yes, Matthews said, “That’s surprising.”
In the second half Saturday, in front of 23,051 people at Bridgeforth Stadium and a national cable television audience, JMU managed just 94 yards and went three-and-out on four of seven possessions, while ODU (10-1, 7-1) scored 21 unanswered points from the 4:34 mark in the third quarter to the 12:26 mark in the fourth to rally after trailing 28-17.
Madison finished with 311 yards of offense and held the Monarchs — who entered the game leading I-AA with 556.6 yards per game — to just 353 yards. Of course, ODU often didn’t have to mount long drives. Its average starting field position was its 39-yard line. On three of their 12 possessions, the Monarchs started on JMU’s side of the 50. Seven times, they started on their 41 or better.
“That was the story of the game: field position. It was a field-position nightmare for us, and the second half, we just couldn’t move the ball,” said Matthews, who described the offense as “pathetic.”
ODU star quarterback Taylor Heinicke completed 32 of 45 passes for 357 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. The sophomore got hot during the 21-point run, throwing touchdown passes of 59, 17 and 9 yards.
After being intercepted by Jackson off a tip from Robertson with 6:32 left in the game, Heinicke completed 12 passes in a row before throwing incomplete on the second play of a nearly four-minute drive that left JMU with just 3:08 to come back from a 10-point deficit.
Thorpe was sacked twice on that final drive, the second coming on fourth-and-12 from the ODU 38 with 1:40 left to end the Dukes’ rally chances.
Thorpe completed 10 of 17 passes for 155 yards (50 of which came on about a 12-yard pass that Dae’Quan Scott turned into a long touchdown) with one touchdown and no interceptions. Thorpe also rushed for 85 yards on 26 carries, but almost all of his success came in the first half. He also again struggled to connect on deep passes.
“They were hurting us with a lot of specialty plays ...throw-back screens … and then they hit us with the wheel route for the touchdown, back out of the backfield, where we blew the coverage,” ODU coach Bobby Wilder said. “And those were the plays that hurt us. We regrouped at halftime.”
Madison led 21-10 at the break.
Down 38-28, JMU drove from its 29-yard line to the ODU 10 on 10 plays but got stuffed on fourth-and-inches, when Thorpe took a shotgun snap and ran to the short side of the field before being forced out of bounds just shy of the first down.
“We had struggled so much on offense in the second half, I thought it would be hard to get down here again,” Matthews said of the decision to go for it and not kick the short field goal. “But I thought, if you can’t make an inch, you shouldn’t win. But give their kids credit. We couldn’t block them. They made a good defensive play.”
But should JMU have called a different play?
“About 10 different plays I wish I had run — I should have called up there and seen what you guys wanted to run,” Matthews told the press, sarcastically.