JMU Historically Gets Few
Posted: November 2, 2012
HARRISONBURG — At football practice this week, James Madison safety Daniel Allen intercepted a floating pass from quarterback Michael Birdsong and returned it roughly 70 yards for what might have been a “touchdown” had the session been full-contact.
It was a rare sight for the JMU defense, which has struggled this season to force turnovers, something that has frustrated coach Mickey Matthews for weeks.
“We’re playing good enough defense; we must get some more turnovers on defense,” the 14th-year coach said.
Last Saturday, safety Dean Marlowe forced a fumble on a big hit on the first play from scrimmage against Georgia State. Linebacker Jamie Veney recovered inside the red zone, and the Dukes scored a few plays later.
It was just JMU’s seventh takeaway of the season, which ranks last in the 11-team Colonial Athletic Association. Rhode Island and Towson are ahead of the Dukes with eight, and New Hampshire leads the league with 24.
“Mentally, every time, we don’t just want a three-and-out,” cornerback/safety Ryan Smith said. “We want turnovers on the other side of the 50 to help out the offense.”
A major problem for Madison this season has been hanging on to interceptions. It has just four, and three of those belong to Marlowe. Smith has the fourth pick.
Matthews joked this week that James Madison leads the NCAA in dropped interceptions. The Dukes have had several gift picks this season that they’ve just dropped. It’s unclear why JMU has such a hard time holding on to picks, but Matthews said it’s been a focus in practice.
“We’ve been trying,” Matthews said. “We’ve been working on it very hard — slapping the ball. We just need to catch the ball. In the Richmond game, we had our hands on four of five of them.”
New Hampshire leads the league with 15 interceptions, and Richmond is just behind the Wildcats with 14.
Cornerback Corey Davis said JMU needs to be more aggressive.
“It’s more about going out there and just wanting to make the play, going after the ball when the ball’s in the air,” he said. “Attacking the ball.”
This isn’t a new problem. According to conference statistics, a takeaway dearth has been an issue for a while.
From the 2003 season (the furthest back the CAA has stats available) through this year’s games, JMU has a total of 192 takeaways, which ranks eighth out of 14 teams in that time span. New Hampshire is No. 1 with 307, followed by Delaware (243), Maine (228), Richmond (220) and Massachusetts (213) — which bolted for the Division I-A Mid-American Conference after last season — in the top five.
Of the six teams below Madison, two no longer play football — Hofstra (10th with 150 takeaways) and Northeastern (11th with 146) disbanded their programs after the 2009 season — and three haven’t been CAA members the whole time. Old Dominion (13th with 41) joined last season and Georgia State last with 12) joined this year. Towson’s first season was 2004.
The only team below JMU that has been in the CAA since 2003 (then the Atlantic 10) is Rhode Island, which has won more than four games only once since going 8-3 in 2001. So, of the eight teams that have been in the conference every year since 2003, the Dukes are second to last, ahead of only URI, 192 to 185.
Madison’s best season for turnovers was, not surprisingly, the year it won the Division I-AA national championship: 2004. JMU led the CAA with 33, including 17 interceptions. That year, linebacker Trey Townsend and cornerback Clint Kent had five each, and linebacker Akeem Jordan, safety Tony LeZotte and cornerback Cortez Thompson each had two.
Over the nine complete seasons from 2003 to 2011, New Hampshire leads the league, on average, forcing 31.1 turnovers per season. In this category, JMU ranks 10th, averaging 20.6 per season, leading only Rhode Island (19.7), William & Mary (19.6) and Towson (16.5). (This list excludes Georgia State because it wasn’t in the league last season, so instead of 14 teams, these rankings are out of 13.)
Forcing turnovers isn’t as crucial if you’re not turning it over — and JMU, over the years, has just about broken even in that department. From 2003-11, the Dukes’ average turnover margin was plus-1.7. In that span, the average of the best turnover margin in the league was plus-15.3.
This season, however, JMU’s turnover margin is minus-4, furthering the urgency for the Dukes to get more takeaways. The defense, overall, has been good, giving up a CAA-best 18.9 points per game.