JMU football 38, Central Connecticut St. 14

Quarterback Michael Birdsong rushes for a touchdown in JMU's 38-14 win over Central Connecticut State on Aug. 31.

Quarterback Michael Birdsong rushes for a touchdown in JMU’s 38-14 win over Central Connecticut State on Aug. 31.

This is game story from the JMU football team’s 2013 season-opener, a win over Central Connecticut State. It ran on Sept 2, 2013.

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Michael Birdsong wasn’t supposed to run much in the James Madison football team’s season-opener Saturday. The Dukes’ quarterback, it turns out, had other ideas — despite JMU’s meager depth at the most important position on the field.

“Obviously, I’m pretty big out there compared to most quarterbacks,” said Birdsong, a sturdy, 6-foot-4, 240-pounder. “When I’m going up against a defense, I’m 240 pounds, so I’m not going to shy down from anybody. Coaches don’t seem to like that too much, and I’m gonna adjust, but if it’s one-on-one, I’m gonna attack him. I’m not gonna try to sidestep ‘em or slide, unless it’s a crowd — like I should have a few times tonight.”

Birdsong, in just his third career start and with the grace of a forklift, brutalized his way to 55 rushing yards on nine carries, two touchdowns and even a 2-point conversion while throwing for 115 yards to lead JMU to a 38-14 win over lightweight Central Connecticut State in front of 23,541 people at Bridgeforth Stadium.

“We’ve got to get him to slide,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said of Birdsong. “I was yelling at him. He’ll learn. … The biggest positive of the game was he didn’t turn the ball over. … He didn’t throw it in a crowd.”

Birdsong is all the Dukes (1-0) have at quarterback. His backups are a pair of walk-on true freshmen, so keeping the sophomore healthy is a paramount concern. Birdsong tested Matthews’ heart all night.

“I’m not very brave,” the 15th-year coach said. “I was like everyone else: I was holding my breath every time he ran with it. Now, Michael’s a great athlete. I think everyone can see that. He made some great throws tonight, and he’ll get nothing but better, but I’m not real brave about having him run the ball.”

Birdsong finished 10-of-18 passing with a 3-yard touchdown to Dean Cheatham and no interceptions before being pulled for true freshman Dan Schiele, JMU’s No. 2 quarterback and a recruited walk-on, with just over five minutes left in the game.

Birdsong’s runs — many coming after contact that left a CCSU defender (or several) prone and twisted on Bridgeforth’s new turf — were all ad-libbed.

“I knew he was athletic and big — I mean, he’s bigger than our defensive linemen,” Central Connecticut State coach Jeff McInerney said. “And I give him a lot of credit. He’s a physical, tough young man who competed extremely hard. But he made some critical plays. We were 4-of-6, I think, at halftime on third down, and he got ‘em out a couple times running the football, which was huge.”

Madison’s new offense wasn’t the “Air Dukes” once promised this offseason when Matthews briefly hired and quickly lost Hal Mumme as offensive coordinator — he bolted to SMU, where he is now the passing-game coordinator — but the Dukes’ attack was up-tempo and efficient, scoring on six of its first nine possessions and running 64 plays, falling short of the 80-play goal JMU set for itself. But Madison didn’t have the ball much, especially in the third quarter.

“I just wanted to do more offensively than we did,” Matthews said.

JMU, which has traditionally run about 70 percent of the time, kept the ball on the ground for 67 percent of its plays Saturday — not that the Dukes needed to throw. Madison also didn’t have many opportunities in the second half, when it scored on a punt return and an interception.

The Dukes rushed for 247 yards on 43 carries, led by Dae’Quan Scott, and threw for 115, completing 10 of 21 passes against Central Connecticut, which challenged JMU in 2011 before losing 14-9.

Scott, a senior who added 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason, ran like a buffer version of himself, darting for 120 yards on 15 carries, including one in which he reversed direction and went around the other side for a 42-yard gain. He also had a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown with 13:16 left in the third quarter to put JMU ahead 28-7. Scott averaged 8 yards a carry.

But the Dukes were undercut by seven penalties for 70 yards and three fumbles (two lost), and Scott was not happy.

“It felt like I played the worst game of my life,” the tailback said. “I was so sloppy. I left the ball on the ground a lot, and I had so many mistakes, I just felt like I was playing terrible. So yeah, I think it was the worst game of my career.”

JMU took a 13-0 lead after two touchdowns — both Birdsong rushes — and a failed 2-point conversion, and CCSU kept it close, scoring with 3:03 left in the first half to make 13-7. That was the last time the game was competitive. Madison, boosted by two interceptions, outscored CCSU 25-0 until the Devils scored on a 5-yard pass with 8:51 left in the game to make it 38-14.

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