By Tommy Keeler Jr.
HARRISONBURG -- The Colonial Athletic Association ended in a four-way tie for first place and with Villanova getting the automatic conference bid in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. However, don't tell that to Old Dominion University.
The Monarchs were ineligible for the conference title due to the fact that they are headed to the Football Bowl Subdivision next year. After defeating JMU, 38-28, on Saturday night the Monarchs were the only one-loss team in the CAA, with four others tied with two losses.
"We're the champs, we win," ODU head coach Bobby Wilder said with a laugh after the game. "All due respect to the league, I understand they had to do what they had to do, and we understand that. But from our standpoint, we were playing to win the league championship. That was critical to us.
"The kids wanted to be champions. We're very excited to have that unofficial title."
The Monarchs (10-1) rallied from 11 points down in the third quarter to pull out the win over the Dukes.
ODU's offense came alive in the second half. On the Monarchs second possession of the third quarter, they went 41 yards on four plays, all passes. ODU quarterback Taylor Heinicke completed a 9-yard touchdown pass to Marquel Thomas to cut JMU's lead to 21-17 with 8:43 left in the third quarter.
Just when it appeared ODU had the momentum, JMU responded. JMU's Jakarie Jackson intercepted a Heinicke pass and returned it to the ODU 22.
"I just looked at the quarterback and he threw it right to me," Jackson said. "Obviously, that wasn't enough to get the job done today. I'd rather have a win than an interception."
Three plays later, JMU quarterback Justin Thorpe ran it in from five yards out and the Dukes had a 28-17 lead.
Heinicke and the Monarchs' offense came to life after the interception. Heinicke, who went over 4,000 yards passing for the season during the win, went on to complete 12 consecutive passes.
ON ODU's next possession, they went 65 yards in just two plays. Heinicke connected with Antonio Vaughan for a 59-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 28-24.
The Monarchs then took their first lead of the game on their next possession. A penalty had given JMU bad field position, and resulted in ODU starting its next possession on the JMU 45.
ODU used seven plays, including six pass completions by Heinicke, to take the lead. Heinicke found a wide open Larry Pinkard in the end zone for a 31-28 lead with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.
ODU added another touchdown in the fourth quarter. They went 50 yards on five plays with Heinicke connecting to Nick Mayers for a 9-yard touchdown with 12:26 left in the game.
JMU (7-4) had one last scoring opportunity midway through the fourth quarter. The Dukes went 62 yards in 11 plays, driving to the ODU 9-yard line. Facing a fourth-and-inches, JMU head coach Mickey Matthews elected to go for it. Thorpe ran outside to his right, but could not pick up the yardage.
"We'd struggled so much on offense in the second half I thought it would be hard to get down there again," Matthews said of his choice to go for the first down. "If you can't make an inch you shouldn't win. Give their kids credit, we didn't block them on that play. They made a good defensive play."
The Dukes started the game off strong. They used a 13-play, 73-yard drive to strike first against the Monarchs.
They had only three pass attempts on the drive, although one of the biggest plays was a 26-yard completion from Thorpe to Brian Barlow.
Thorpe finished off the drive with a dazzling 9-yard touchdown run. Thorpe appeared to be stopped by ODU's Craig Wilkins at the ODU 3-yard line, but leaped over top of him and fell into the end zone for a 7-0 JMU lead.
"The first half we were rolling," Barlow, said. "Everything was going well. Second half, I think the offense came out kind of flat."
The Monarchs answered with a 47-yard field goal by Jarod Brown to cut the lead to 7-3 with 5:39 left in the first quarter.
JMU put together another solid drive on its next possession. The Dukes went 60 yards in seven plays. Thorpe capped off the drive, which were all running plays, with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone for a 14-3 lead with 2:17 left in the first quarter.
ODU responded with another scoring drive. The Monarchs went 48 yards on eight plays. A 16-yard pass from Heinicke to Blair Roberts helped set-up a 5-yard touchdown run by Colby Goodwyn to cut the lead to 14-10 with 10:18 left in the first half.
JMU scored another first-half touchdown, this time through the air. The Dukes went 74 yards on just five plays. Thorpe connected with tailback Dae'Quan Scott on a wheel route that went for a 50-yard touchdown pass with 7:36 left in the half.
Heinicke finished the game 32 for 45 for 357 yards with four touchdown passes. Heinicke's passing yards for the season rank him 13th highest in FCS history.
"I think he's clearly the best player in the country," Wilder said. "I've been coaching quarterbacks my whole life. I've never seen a better single performance out of a player."
The Monarchs will have a bye in the first round of the playoffs, and will host the winner of the Coastal Carolina-Bethune-Cookman game on Dec. 1.
It's the end of the season for the Dukes, the third time in the last four years they've missed the playoffs. JMU had very high expectations this season, and Barlow, a Sherando graduate said he wasn't sure why the Dukes ended up falling short of their goals.
"[We had] ups and downs," Barlow said. "We're a play here and there from winning a couple games here and there. It's crazy to think about that."
Contact assistant sports editor Tommy Keeler Jr. at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or email@example.com