By Tommy Keeler Jr.
James Madison University football coach Mickey Matthews has been around a long time, and he's seen a lot of great quarterbacks. However, the veteran coach said he had never seen anyone do what JMU true freshman quarterback Michael Birdsong did for the Dukes last week.
Birdsong, who will get his first start at quarterback today, came into the game with the Dukes trailing Richmond 28-10 in the third quarter. He went 11 for 22 for 159 yards passing and one passing touchdown. He also ran for 73 yards and a touchdown. Birdsong and the Dukes had several shots at the end zone in the final seconds, but came up short in a 35-29 loss.
"I could go back through the years, whether it was [when I was at] Georgia or Marshall or TCU, I've never seen a guy change a game like he did," Matthews said. "When you think about it, the game was over and then it wasn't over. In fact, if our defense had played a little bit better we would have won the game."
Birdsong took the place of regular starting quarterback Justin Thorpe, who was 8 for 13 for 142 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Matthews said he wasn't sure if and how much Thorpe would play today against Georgia State.
"Justin will be involved with the offense," Matthews said. "We want him to be involved with the team. We're certainly not going to throw him in the trash. He's a nice kid. He's a good player, and he wants to win as much as the rest of the kids."
Matthews said Birdsong had really been improving in practice the last few weeks, and he felt like they needed to make a change to try to get the offense going.
Matthews coached former NFL quarterback Chad Pennington when he was at Marshall and said he sees some similarities between Pennington and Birdsong.
"Chad doesn't have the arm strength that Michael does," Matthews said. "Chad was extremely intelligent. Probably the biggest thing Michael has that Pennington had, too -- he has so much presence about him. And I think the other players pick up on that."
Georgia State has struggled most of the season and has only one win.
Matthews said he's not concerned with who the team plays this week, he just wants the Dukes to show improvement and be the team that he expects them to be.
"We need to get better at what we're doing," Matthews said. "We need to have a sense of urgency about us going into the month of November."
One of the biggest concerns Matthews has is his defense, which got torched by Richmond last week.
"[It was the] second straight week we played a team with no turnovers," Matthews said. "We need to create more turnovers. We need to make plays on defense. We didn't make any plays on defense last week."
Turnovers have been one thing that's hurt Georgia State. The Panthers have turned the ball over 24 times in eight games, including 15 interceptions.
Georgia State coach Bill Curry said that if the Panthers can take care of that problem, they will win more games.
"I think we're at a point with our program now, where when we play without turning the ball over we got a chance," Curry said. "We got to hang onto the football."
Georgia State will be moving up to FBS next year, and Curry said he feels this program will be all right in part because of playing in the CAA.
"Obviously we're struggling in the best FCS league and every year this league beats an FBS team," Curry said. "And we're finding out just how good this league is first-hand. Hopefully playing this rugged competition will help prepare these guys for next year."
Curry has been around for a long time. He's been the head coach at Alabama, Georgia Tech and Kentucky.
He's now in his third year at Georgia State and announced before the season he was retiring after this year.
Matthews said the college coaching world is losing a good one when Curry retires.
"[There's] not many times you get to coach against a living legend, which I believe he is," Matthews said. "Bill's a dear friend of mine. I love Bill Curry. He's a heck of a football coach. The No. 1 thing about Bill is -- he's a gentleman. He's first-class."
Contact assistant sports editor Tommy Keeler Jr. at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org