Mickey Blames The ‘O’
Dukes’ Season Disappointing
Posted: November 21, 2012
HARRISONBURG — During a 20-minute interview this week, coach Mickey Matthews kept coming back to the James Madison football team’s struggles on offense as the reason the Dukes’ once-promising season ended short of the Division I-AA playoffs.
“The biggest problem we had was we just weren’t very good on offense this year,” a somber, frustrated Matthews said in his Plecker Center office. “The second half of the Old Dominion game was, in capsule form, our entire season.”
JMU’s season ended Saturday with a 38-28 loss to Old Dominion. The Dukes controlled the first half, taking a 21-10 lead behind a strong rushing performance from quarterback Justin Thorpe — it included a highlight-reel touchdown in which Thorpe vaulted a defender — and a typically stout performance by the Madison defense.
But, in the second half, the Dukes’ offense did what it did all season. It took too many three-and-outs and put the defense on the field too much. JMU’s defense got tired, and ODU — which started near the 50-yard line all game — scored 21 unanswered points to win.
“We had them on the run at the half,” Matthews said. “I thought there was no ques tion we would have beat them if we moved the ball. They were struggling to move the ball, even with the great field position they had. The second half... our defensive kids got tired.”
The Dukes still went 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the CAA — a solid record in perhaps I-AA’s toughest league — and were outstanding on defense and, except for the ODU game, special teams, too.
Madison senior punter David Skahn was a third-team All-CAA pick. In kick-return defense, the Dukes ranked 18th out of 121 I-AA teams, giving up 17.47 yards a return. In punt-return defense, they ranked eighth.
But JMU missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, upsetting many Madison fans. Matthews — who said his “expectations are higher than any of the people outside the program” — said he’s aware of the criticism.
“That comes with the territory,” he said. “I don’t think much about it, to be honest with you.”
JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne did not respond to messages seeking comment on Matthews’ performance this season. Matthews’ $222,000-a-year contract expires Jan. 31, 2015. He received a one-year extension in March.
Matthews, who just finished his 14th season at Madison and won a national title in 2004, said he meets with Bourne after every season but hasn’t yet this year. Bourne, the CAA’s representative on the I-AA playoff selection committee, also has been traveling. Matthews said no staff changes would be made until after he spoke with Bourne in the next “three to four” weeks.
“We always look at everything,” Matthews said. “I’ve never been in a hurry to do anything. … This is not my first rodeo, so I know not to make rash judgments after many pitfalls.”
JMU’s offense has been an issue since quarterback Rodney Landers’ electrifying run ended in 2008. Madison has lacked consistency at the position and rarely has had a passing attack that threatened opponents.
This year, the Dukes ranked 47th in I-AA in yards per game (391.5) and 48th in points per game (28.8). In the CAA, the Dukes were sixth in both categories after ranking sixth (348.7 yards) and eighth (22.2 points) in 2011.
Madison’s offense — which this season lost two of its top receivers, Daniel Brown and Marquis Woodyard, and offensive tackle Austin Lane to injuries — never really got going. Its best game against conference competition came Nov. 3 at Maine when, using a two-quarterback system, the Dukes scored 31 unanswered points and had 476 yards of offense. After Maine, the offense limped its way through the final two games, crucial losses to Villanova and Old Dominion.
Against Maine, JMU played both Michael Birdsong and Justin Thorpe at quarterback. Birdsong, the better passer, started, and Thorpe, the better runner, came in off the bench. Matthews said the Dukes would have gone with a two-QB offense the rest of the season, but Birdsong sprained his right ankle with less than a minute left and JMU up 31-0, forcing the Dukes to go to Thorpe — who had been benched for one game in favor of Birdsong — the rest of the year.
“We just couldn’t get anything going offensively, and the one spark we did have — the best game we played was up at Maine, and the kid gets hurt,” Matthews said. “We seemed to find a rhythm. I didn’t say much to [reporters], but my frustration level was off the scale when Birdsong got hurt up there because we just played so good on offense.”
Matthews said Birdsong — who tried to get ready to play against ODU but wasn’t healthy enough — gave the Dukes a balanced attack after they struggled to throw it with Thorpe. Birdsong will be a sophomore next year, and Thorpe is eligible to return for a sixth season. Matthews said he had not heard that Thorpe wouldn’t be back.
James Madison also has Lafonte Thourogood, a Vanderbilt transfer who will be a sophomore in 2013. Then there’s Ian Fisher and Taylor Reynolds, who both redshirted this year and spent much of the season on the scout team playing other positions. Fisher was primarily a tight end, and Reynolds spent time at cornerback and wide receiver.
So what will JMU do next year? Matthew said we’ll find out in about a month.
“We’re not going to make any decisions today when we’re still frustrated.”