JMU Analysis: Dukes Have Plenty Of Questions Moving Forward; No Answers Yet
Posted: November 18, 2012
Mickey Matthews sat down for his post-game interview after Saturday's 38-28 loss to Old Dominion and groaned as he took off his black JMU cap and brushed his hand through his hair.
Barring some selection show voodoo, his James Madison football team will fail to reach the Division I-AA playoffs for the third time in four years. That detail rankles a JMU fan base that expects title contention on an annual basis.
So, Mickey, is there something you have to re-evaluate within the program, something you need to change?
"I don't know," Matthews said after what will almost certainly be the 7-4 Dukes' final game this year. "You're asking that question right after a game. We're pretty low right now. I think that's kind of a bad question after a game. Why don't you ask me that in about a month."
When Mickey's month of decompression ends, his answer to that question will be interesting. The offense, in his words, was "pathetic" down the stretch this year. And like clockwork, spring practice will probably deliver another quarterback battle.
Dual-threat QB Justin Thorpe can be as shiny as a newly minted penny on one drive and then feckless on the next. He accounted for a career-high four touchdowns Saturday (three rushing and one passing) but couldn't spark a listless JMU offense in a seven-point second half.
Thorpe, to whom the NCAA granted an extra season of eligibility due to injuries, will enter his sixth year with the Dukes - but he might not even enter it as the favorite to win his position.
Matthews said the biggest moment of this season was when freshman quarterback Michael Birdsong injured his right ankle on a meaningless play at the end of a win at Maine. The stronger-armed Birdsong had wrestled the starting job from Thorpe the previous game, but Thorpe appeared to win it back with his inspired performance in relief that day. Birdsong was essentially playing in mop-up duty when he got hurt.
Based on his comments Saturday, Matthews planned to keep yo-yoing his quarterbacks based on their effectiveness.
"We certainly would have liked to have [Birdsong] these last two games," Matthews said. "… We have been pathetic offensively the last two games."
Asked Saturday if a healthy Birdsong would have started in losses against Villanova and ODU, Matthews was noncommittal.
"It's hard to answer those questions right now," he said, "but we thought we found a good mix at Maine, with Michael playing 30 plays and Justin playing - I think it was 46-to-28 [plays for Thorpe compared to plays for Birdsong, respectively]. You know, Justin struggled to throw the ball. We just struggled. To throw. The ball. We had receivers open tonight, and we just really struggled."
Thorpe declined to speak with the media after the game.
The Dukes who did show accountability by attending the post-game press conference couldn't put their fingers on what prevented JMU from accomplishing its goals again this year.
"Ups and downs. I don't really know," tight end Brian Barlow said. "We're a play here and there from winning a couple games here and there. It's crazy to think about that. I can't really say what went wrong. I don't really know."
Barlow, a senior, won't be around for next year's campaign.
Junior linebacker Stephon Robertson - the heart of JMU's solid defense - will. Robertson's eyes were welled up after the loss. Asked what needs to change to make next year more successful, Robertson covered the basics: Young guys need to step up, playmakers must emerge on both sides of the ball.
The Dukes were solid in 2012, but solid wasn't good enough.
"We're 7-4 and you'd think we're 2-9," Matthews said. "We were 7-4 and a lot of teams would die to be 7-4."
He's right. But not teams that begin the season No. 5 in the nation. Not teams that have annual eyes on winning their conference, and end up finishing sixth. Not teams that hope to sell out a 25,000-seat stadium that's among the largest in I-AA football.
What needs to change to make JMU a powerhouse, rather than just a close-but-no-cigar playoff hopeful?
A month from now - right around the time when the top remaining teams are battling for a spot in Frisco, Tex., for the national title game - we might just hear Matthews' plans to help put the Dukes in that position.