JMU loses, coach gets mad about underachievement question

JMU's Ascene Jacques makes a tackle in the Dukes' loss to Stony Brook.

JMU’s Ascene Jacques makes a tackle in the Dukes’ loss to Stony Brook.

This is the game story for the JMU’s 41-38 loss to Stony Brook on Saturday. The game very likely kicked JMU out of playoff consideration, which is a big deal. I-AA JMU spends I-A money on football, but the program has underachieved over the past four seasons, making just one playoff appearance. The story ran on Nov. 18, 2013.

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Saturday afternoon, the James Madison football team played a game that meant everything to its playoff chances.

For about three quarters, the Dukes played like no one told them.

Stony Brook bludgeoned JMU to start, twice taking a 21-point lead thanks to a career day from its quarterback, and repelled a late Madison rally to beat the Dukes 41-38 at a Bridgeforth Stadium that looked half-empty.

The official attendance was 17,969 at the 25,000-seat stadium.

Although the Dukes (6-5 overall, 3-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association) have one game left — at Towson next week — it probably doesn’t matter. The Stony Brook loss, characterized by bad tackling and worse pass defense, all but assures JMU will miss the Division I-AA postseason for the fourth time in five seasons.

“Our guys wanted to go very badly, and it really hurts — horribly,” Dukes coach Mickey Matthews said. “But I don’t know any other way to describe it than that. We’ve worked very hard. We just couldn’t play any pass defense.”

It was only new member Stony Brook’s second CAA win of the season.

The Dukes, despite a big monetary commitment to football, haven’t won a CAA title since 2008. That also was the last time they made a deep run in the I-AA playoffs, losing in the semifinals.

When seniors Stephon Robertson and Dae’Quan Scott were asked if they felt the team had underachieved during their careers, they, without hesitation, said it had.

“Most definitely,” said Robertson, the Dukes’ star middle linebacker who had 11 tackles Saturday. “We always have the talent here, and it’s just about executing and just going where we need to go and where we want to go, but I guess since I’ve been here it’s always just something goes wrong and we just always have something happen and we just always come up short.”

Scott — a tailback who caught four passes for 96 yards and ran for 57 on 16 carries to go over 1,000 rushing yards for the season Saturday — was most disappointed in the lack of a championship.

“None of us have a ring,” Scott said. “We didn’t get a ring in our five years, not a conference championship, national championship, anything. I mean, we had a chance to play on great teams — five great teams — and came up short every year, so definitely underachieving. But, I mean, good luck for the kids next year. I know they’ll push for that championship.”

Matthews, when asked about his teams’ apparent underachievement in recent seasons and what the players said about it, criticized the question.

“I know you probably put that — that was your question. I’m sure it was a bad question you asked them,” said Matthews, who has just one season remaining on his $222,000-a-year contract. “When you ask a kid, ‘Did you underachieve after a tough loss?” like that, I think it’s kind of a cheap question to be asking, if you think about it.

“Our kids were down when you asked that. After a loss, I think anytime you ask a kid after a loss, a tough loss like that, they’re probably going to say they underachieved. Their feelings are hurt, so they probably would answer it that way, and you’re trying to cause a controversy. That’s your job as a reporter.”

JMU’s loss overshadowed a career day for Michael Birdsong. The sophomore quarterback threw for a career-high 355 yards — his previous best was 310 against Akron on Sept. 7 — and a JMU record five touchdowns. He also broke Mike Cawley’s season record of 2,459 passing yards, set in 1995.

Birdsong now has 2,558 passing yards this season and finished Saturday 23-of-34 while overcoming two interceptions to nearly lead the Dukes back from an abominable first half in which they gave up 31 points — the most first-half points JMU has allowed since giving up 34 to Richmond in 1992. Saturday also was the first time since losing 41-24 to Northeastern in 2003 that the Dukes have allowed more than 40 points to a I-AA opponent.

The pass defense was a big reason why.

Stony Brook (4-6, 2-5) found inviting holes in the JMU secondary, and on the touchdown that put the Seawolves up 38-17 with 11:34 left in the third quarter, two Madison defensive backs just watched SBU tight end Will Tye jaunt into the end zone.

“We felt our matchups were good,” said Stony Brook coach Chuck Priore, whose team joined the CAA this season after winning at least a share of four straight Big South titles. “We thought our receivers would be able to add yardage, and JMU’s run defense is top five in the country statistically, so we thought we’d have to score points to win. That was the game plan.”

The JMU secondary — which lost a starting safety for the year because of an injury and starts two freshmen — has been a weak spot all season, but opposing teams have exploited it especially hard in recent weeks.

Last Saturday, New Hampshire threw for 449 yards. Stony Brook quarterback Lyle Negron passed for a career-best 395 yards, going 23-of-32 with three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Seawolves entered the game averaging just 190 passing yards a game.

“We really show our youth in the secondary,” Matthews said. “We’re very, very, very inexperienced in the secondary, and those guys get shelled out there and they don’t handle it real good. We don’t have a lot of depth, and it just really shows in games like that.”

JMU outscored Stony Brook 21-10 in the second half and came within one possession of winning. Birdsong’s fifth touchdown pass of the game — a 10-yarder to Daniel Brown — got the Dukes within a field goal with 4:57 to play, 41-38, but Madison never got the ball back.

The Seawolves converted a fourth-and-1 and picked up another first down two plays later to secure the win.

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