JMU football 24, Saint Francis 20

Tailback Dae'Quan Scott carries the ball during JMU's win 24-20 win over Saint Francis.

Tailback Dae’Quan Scott carries the ball during JMU’s win 24-20 win over Saint Francis.

This is the story from JMU’s third game of the 2013 season, a 24-20 win over Saint Francis. It ran on Sept. 16, 2013.

HARRISONBURG, Va. — The good part for James Madison’s football team was that it rallied from 11 points down to beat Saint Francis 24-20 on Saturday night. The bad part was just about everything else.

Mickey Matthews, your thoughts?

“I thought they really played well, and I thought we really played bad,” the JMU coach said. “What else you all wanna ask?”

The Dukes (2-1) couldn’t pass, threw interceptions, fumbled, committed penalties (eight for 54 yards) and again gave up big plays on defense in a confluence of underachievement in front of 21,276 fans at Bridgeforth Stadium, which was gaping with vacant seats by the fourth quarter.

JMU was coming off a near-victory last week over Division I-A Akron, which lost just 28-24 to Michigan on Saturday. Matthews said the Akron game was Madison’s best offensive performance in five years, but Saturday against out-manned Saint Francis (0-2), the passing game was so bad that, at some point in the second half, Matthews put a moratorium on throwing.

The Dukes threw their last pass with 12:18 left in the game. It resulted in an interception, sophomore quarterback Michael Birdsong’s third of the game.

“We shouldn’t have even tried to pass,” Matthews said. “We couldn’t throw it. We couldn’t catch it, and we couldn’t protect. Other than that, our pass offense was great. I finally told [offensive coordinator] Mike [O’Cain], I said, ‘Mike, don’t throw any more passes. Don’t throw any more passes the rest the game; we’ll win.’ Because we couldn’t do it. … We would have won by a big score if we had not attempted one pass.

Matthews said JMU ran just two plays, both of the running variety, late in the game, and that there would be tweaks to the passing game.

“I don’t think anyone wants to watch another game like that, do you? I don’t want to. I didn’t have a lot of fun tonight,” said Matthews, who wanted to watch film before making any decisions.

Birdsong, who was limited in practice this week after dislocating his non-throwing shoulder and injuring his foot at Akron, completed 10 of 23 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown but was picked off three times.

Saint Francis, a I-AA pushover that JMU blasted 55-7 last season, was tied with the Dukes 17-17 until Madison tailback Dae’Quan Scott scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 22-yard run to the corner of the end zone to make it 24-17 with 7:49 left in the game.

Scott rushed for 190 yards — 137 in the second half — and two touchdowns on 32 carries. It was the 5-foot-9, 215-pound senior’s third straight 100-yard rushing game, and he carried the Dukes’ stumbling offense — Matthews described it as “deplorable” — down the stretch, scoring both his touchdowns in the second half. The first one — a 24-yard run with 1:11 to go in the third quarter — gave JMU its first lead of the game, 17-14.

“That just came with being a senior,” Scott said. “If the offense isn’t clicking on all cylinders — and the passing game wasn’t tonight, so I just felt like I had to put the team on my back and lead us to victory.”

JMU’s defense stopped Saint Francis on its final possession. The Red Flash’s last-gasp pass on fourth-and-16 was caught out of bounds, leaving the Dukes to kneel out the clock and escape with an ugly, ugly win.

“They stunned us,” Birdsong said of Saint Francis. “They came out fighting and they hit us in the mouth and got us off-track.”

JMU’s defense, despite giving up two big plays — a 72-yard SFU touchdown pass on the first play of the game and a 50-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter — kept the Dukes in it. The defense had eight sacks, led by defensive end Sage Harold, who finished with three to go with seven tackles.

“We just wanted to stop them from getting in the end zone,” Harold said. “…If we stopped from getting that, we believed in our offense to get the points on the board that we needed to win the game, and we stopped them.”

Linebacker Stephon Robertson (14 tackles) and defensive tackle Jordan Stanton (eight tackles) each had two sacks. Defensive end Tyler Snow and defensive tackle Bingham Togia each had half a sack.

The Red Flash had 253 yards of total offense, with nearly half — 122 (48 percent) — coming on the two big plays. JMU had 398 yards of offense, 253 of which came on the ground. The Dukes ran 73 plays.

But the game was more memorable for what JMU couldn’t do on offense. The Dukes sputtered their way through the first half, going three-and-out on four of their eight possessions. Two more ended on interceptions. They also battled horrible field position, especially early.

“We came out here and didn’t take these guys like we should, which is as a college football team,” Birdsong said. “Any college football team has got 11 good guys on the other side of the ball. So, I mean, it’s our fault. We’ve got to step it up. We can’t let it happen again.”

Still, JMU did enough to survive.

“You didn’t have to tell our players they were playing terrible,” Matthews said. “And they showed enough — like Richmond got upset tonight [by Gardner-Webb] and there were some teams that got upset in our league, and we played well enough to win the game there at the end of the game. We made enough to plays to win.”

NOTE: Matthews said tailback Jauan Latney dislocated his kneecap and could miss one to two weeks.

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